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The Pearl of Death

Sherlock Holmes against the Hoxton Creeper. He must protect his third lumbar vertebrae
"One of two things has happened. Either the woman he bumped into was an accomplice, in which case she has the pearl, or he managed somehow to conceal it in his flight."

The pearl, of course, is the cursed Borgia Pearl, an object of rich men's lust. The "he" is Giles Conover (Miles Mander), a master criminal as cruel as he is clever, as contemptuous of men as he is unmoved by women.

The Borgia Pearl has been the object of criminal stratagems since it arrived in London for display in the British Museum. The director of the museum is immensely proud of how he has harnessed electricity to warn of any untoward action involving the museum's objects. But what happens when Sherlock Holmes (Basil Rathbone) apparently makes a mistake. And what happens when the electricity doesn't work.

It will be Sherlock Holmes, aided by his game but confused partner, Watson (Nigel Bruce), against Giles Conover. Holmes makes his disdain for Conover clear. "I don't like the smell of you -- an underground smell, the sick sweetness of decay. You haven't robbed and killed merely for the game like any ordinary halfway decent thug. No, you're in love with cruelty for it's own sake."

Little does Holmes realize that Conover has a creature of his own...a brute whose face is the result of a disorder of the pituitary gland. Watson might call it acromegaly. Most laymen would say it's the Easter Island Statue Syndrome. It's not long before Holmes must deal not only with Conover, but also with this creature...the Hoxton Creeper (Rondo Hatton). "A monster, Watson," Holmes says, "with the chest of a buffalo and the arms of a gorilla. His particular method of murder is back breaking. And it's always the same...the third lumbar vertebrae." "How horrible," says Watson.

Does Sherlock Holmes best the Creeper? Does he recover the Borgia Pearl? Does Conover taste the bitter brew of utter defeat? You'll get no spoilers from me.

Some think macaroni and cheese is the perfect comfort for what ails you. I think it's Rathbone and Bruce. People can argue about which actor has been the best Sherlock Holmes, but there is something about Rathbone's style, earnestness, profile and line delivery that makes me sit back and smile every time I watch him play The Great Detective. All that Victorian gaslight, fog and cobblestones help, too. With some strange alchemy, the Holmes movies with Rathbone have turned into an elixir of kitsch, style, remembrance of things past, satisfaction and noble causes. Mac and cheese doesn't come close.

They Only Kill Their Masters

Not perfect, but James Garner, small town kinky murder and some great character actors carry the day
They Only Kill Their Masters is a flawed murder mystery. A meatloaf dinner half way through stops it in its tracks. The female romantic lead is as bland and uninteresting as packaged custard. The director never establishes control over the movie.

On the other hand, it also has a great deal of easy-going charm, a winning performance by James Garner (who carries the picture) and a deliberately misleading set of clues that lead to steamy speculation, smarmy behavior and committed kinkiness. There's a sleight-of-hand solution that makes sense and a Doberman named Murphy with chompers big enough to rip out a throat and a tail that could power an aluminum smelter just by wags.

Never trust small town values, especially if the small town is Eden Landing on the California coast. When a young woman washes up on the sand in front of a beach house, she has major mauling on her body and a prancing Doberman bouncing around in the surf next to her. It's not long before the newspaper pronounces the woman dead by dog and Murphy is scheduled for euthanasia by Dr. Watkins (Hal Holbrook), the town vet. Then Police Chief Abel Marsh (Garner) has a talk with the town coroner. Seems the dog's bites were all on the body's arms and legs. Looks like Murphy might have been trying to rescue her. Then there's evidence that she drowned...on purpose and it wasn't suicide. Her lungs are full of tap water mixed with salt, not seawater. And she was pregnant. As Abel investigates, he finds more questions than answers. He gets bashed and beaten. And he finds he likes the vet's new assistant (Katharine Ross) well enough to invite her over for a meatloaf supper. Abel also finds some erotic photos. Seems the dead woman liked to keep a record of her doings. Through it all Abel remains skeptical, likable, wry and smart...just like James Garner. The conclusion is tricky and nearly lethal for Abel.

Some fine actors join Garner in this flawed but interesting murder mystery. Katharine Ross, unfortunately, brings little to the part. The character is bland, has a nice smile, not much personality and pours too much dressing on the salad she makes for herself and Abel to accompany Abel's meatloaf. But as compensation there are all those excellent, aging actors who show up and demonstrate why Garner is wise enough not to go toe-to-toe with them in their scenes together. Tom Ewell is one of Abel's cops; June Allyson is the vet's wife; Edmund O'Brien is the liquor store owner; Arthur O'Connell owns the local diner and Ann Rutherford is Abel's police dispatcher. Even Peter Lawford shows up as a sleaze with a lot of hair. They give us more than cameos, but none of the parts requires actors as known as they are. The result is that each actor gets a little extra business to do so that we can appreciate their skill and we can remember their great roles. As much as they add to the movie's pleasure, their presence distracts from the story.

I've always liked this movie. The solution is unexpected. Garner is Garner, and that's a plus. And it's still good to see in their old age just how skilled and professional were Edmund O'Brien (D.O.A., Seven Days in May, The Wild Bunch), Tom Ewell (Adam's Rib, The Seven Year Itch) and Arthur O'Connell (Picnic, Anatomy of a Murder).

The Friends of Eddie Coyle

"Look, I'm getting' old," Eddie Coyle says. That's the least of Eddie's worries
"Eddie doesn't rob banks...He's about this high in the bunch but he gets around more than any man I've ever seen," says Dave Foley (Richard Jordan), a baby-faced Boston cop about as amoral as the wiseguys he hunts. Eddie Coyle (Robert Mitchum) is a worn out, two-bit gunrunner. He provides untraceable revolvers when required. He draws the line at machine guns. Eddie is honorable in his way. He loves his family. He's just a low life who isn't all that shrewd. The fix he's in, because he can't take any more jail time, is what this superb Peter Yates' movie is all about.

"Look. I'm getting' old, y'hear?" Eddie tells a young hood who deals in machine guns. "I spend most of my life hangin' around crummy joints with the punks drinkin' the beer, eatin' the hash an' hot dogs and watchin' the other people go off to Florida while I'm sweatin' how I'm going' to pay the plumber. I done time when I stood up but I can't take no more chances. Next time it's going' to be me going' to Florida." Now he's facing more prison time for foolishly agreeing to drive a getaway car when he should have asked his friends some questions. He'll do just about anything to cut a deal for no jail time. He's nearly 50. He doesn't want his wife to go on welfare, doesn't want his three kids made fun of because their old man is doing time. He's squeezed by Dave Foley to inform...and Eddie decides he'll rat a little. He's too believing to understand he might be tagged for ratting big time. It's all betrayal, but Eddie doesn't really understand betrayal. All those friends of Eddie's make us wary every time we meet them: Scalise (Alex Rocco), who robs banks, sometimes violently; Jackie (Steve Keats), the dangerous dealer in stolen machine guns; Dillon (Peter Boyle), owner of a low-life bar who knows more about things than Eddie does.

The movie looks as hopeless as the Boston weather. It's the cold end of fall, filled with drab, chill days where parking lot asphalt is always wet. We're into Eddie's life in the low lane, where the anchors in the crummy strip malls are a tired Woolworth's and Barbo's Furniture Store. It's a lousy life and it belongs to Eddie Coyle. "Have a nice day."

Director Peter Yates sets up scenes -- an exchange of machine guns, a bank robbery, a family held hostage, a stakeout in a commuter train lot, a night on the town -- that are so naturally established that we might miss how skillfully they build the story and show us Eddie's life. We're never sure if things are as hopeless for Eddie as they seem. Yates keeps us on edge, and he adds layers of Eddie Coyle's sad and foolish trust.

This is one of Robert Mitchum's best performances. Mitchum still looks like he might be a tough guy, but his Eddie Coyle is a man who has had the force of his life wrung out of him. He's been in the life forever. He does the jobs others ask him to. He doesn't ask very many questions. He's just not smart enough. Mitchum takes all the hard edges off his usual persona and gives us an aging loser whose life is on the skids, and who doesn't understand just how badly off he is.

Buchanan Rides Alone

Here's a fine Randolph Scott outing, with humor and irony
Buchanan Rides Alone is surprising and surprisingly good. Randolph Scott is not the lone man on horseback who rides into town with a righteous grudge. He's just Tom Buchanan, riding up from Mexico where he earned a stake big enough to buy the spread in West Texas he's always wanted. When he crosses the border and enters Agry Town, the county seat of Agry County, California, things are going to turn bad fast.

Agry Town sits right on the border. The county judge is Simon Agry. The county sheriff is Lew Agry. Yep, the Agry's run things hereabouts. Tom tries to deal with everyone with a friendly smile. He's not looking for trouble, just a place to get a drink, sleep and to eat a good steak...at the town's Agry Hotel. Lew Agry isn't so easy going. When he realizes Tom has gold hidden in Tom's gun belt, the gold gets confiscated and Tom gets beaten. When Tom tries to break up a gun battle between a young man from Mexico and a drunken Agry who is the judge's son (who just rode back to town with female fingernail scratches on his face), the Agry pulls first and gets dead fast. Tom and Juan de la Vega (Manuel Rojas), son of a powerful Mexican landowner, wind up in jail awaiting hanging. There are gunfights, breakouts, bushwhacking, bribes, a $50,000 ransom and lots of dirty dealing, especially among the Agry brothers. They have as much family feeling as one shark fetus sharing space in mom with another.

Judge Simon Agry (Tol Avery) runs the town with a soft, greasy hand. He's pudgy, ambitious, hypocritical, cautious and double dealing. Sheriff Lew Agry (Barry Kelley) is a tough man with a beefy face, a solid gut and a rancid disposition. "Take him over to the jailhouse and wait for him to come to. When I hang a man, I like him to know what's going on." Always around the judge, dressed in black and slick as a patch of fresh horse manure, is Abe Carbo (Craig Stevens). Carbo seems allied with the judge, but why should he let himself play second fiddle to the Agrys? Carbo is amoral, a man who'll suggest betrayal with a smile and make it seem legal...sort of like a corporate lawyer.

By the end of the movie, the Agry brothers and their town get what they deserve. And Tom Buchanan heads to west Texas, his gold stake back in his gun belt and a nice, satisfied smile on his face.

The movie is surprising good because it moves quickly within its 78 minutes. The betrayal, action and brotherly distaste more than fill any void left by romance (there isn't any), clichés (very few) and anything trying to be what it isn't. Buchanan Rides Alone is a solid piece of Western entertainment with an ironic twist led by Randolph Scott. It's available through the DVD Budd Boetticher Box Set, which also includes the Scott movies The Tall T, Decision at Sundown, Ride Lonesome and Comanche Station.

Empires: The Roman Empire in the First Century

Respectful to a fault, with a concentration on emperors and poets
This PBS-produced documentary, which surveys Rome in the First Century, runs 219 minutes in four parts. It is so calm, so respectful, so stately and so dull that it made me wonder if they really were talking about Rome.

The tales of the emperors, of course, range from greatness to pederasty, from the building of an intercontinental transportation system to wretched excess, from mutual murder to becoming gods. Rome also is the story of great poets, writers, historians, and builders. The documentary spends a lot of time reminding us of this with quotes read by actors with generically well-bred voices.

Even more important and interesting is why the Romans were able to create such an empire. What was the force behind a crummy little village on the Tiber winding up owning everything from England to Egypt? And who was responsible for the most impressive set of officer's uniforms until the Nazis?

Rome is the story not just of emperors and poets, but also of engineers and soldiers, of a great civil service and a slave economy, of an empire-wide free-trade zone and a universal set of laws. Rome might nail you to a cross, but in general if you didn't say bad things about the emperor-god you could believe in any other gods that took your fancy. Said Edward Gibbon, "The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman World, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful. And thus toleration produced not only mutual indulgence, but even religious concord."

Little of this practical cynicism and do-the-job-right energy comes through in this documentary.

I have a great admiration for Sigourney Weaver as an actress, but her narration is simply too emotionless and too earnest. Does she have any more interest in first century Rome than most of us do? Probably not. She was hired to read the author's narration and she does with placid professionalism. The actors selected to voice the words of Ovid, Tacitus and the rest of the dead Romans bring even less moxie to the enterprise. Their voices are smooth, professional and uninteresting.

This documentary is well intentioned, probably more so than is good for it. If you must watch it for the facts, I'd advise that first you watch I, Claudius for the energy.

Murphy's Law

"Ladies first" is the last thing this lady will hear, thanks to Jack Murphy
Murphy's Law: If anything could possibly go wrong, it will.

Murphy's Second Law: Don't mess with Jack Murphy. (Substitute the usual word for 'mess.')

Murphy's Law is a lot better than some people would have you believe. Yeah, yeah, it's a Charles Bronson film from the Eighties, a period when a lot of film enthusiasts sniffed that Bronson was little more than a stuffed dummy who phoned in his performances. Bronson is one of those actors who make condescension drip from the lips of some cineastes.

Charles Bronson was no typical Hollywood actor. He didn't have to be. With that worn-out, weary, tough face he could set a scene just by being there. Bronson was Bronson, and we knew the kind of taciturn, honest, relentless character he'd be. Bronson was a private man, kept to himself, was realistic about his talents and proud enough to deliver the goods. With all that said, you either kind of like his star movies, or at least some of them, or you kind of don't. Murphy's Law is one I like.

Jack Murphy is a police detective on the downslide. His wife, a stacked stripper at a gentlemen's club who fancies herself a dancer, has just divorced him. Murphy doesn't want to let her go, drinks himself into a stupor most nights and shows up for work with stains on his rumpled suit and bad breath. Then his wife is killed and he's arrested for her murder. Jack Murphy knows he must find out who the real murderer is, so he breaks out of jail. While he tries to identify the killer, the killer bumps off one person after another who helps Murphy or who was associated with him. Early in the movie we know who the killer is (this is no spoiler), a psycho named Joan Freeman (Carrie Snodgrass). Murphy put her behind bars ten years ago and now she's out. She's ready for some wet revenge. She leaves corpses in her wake. She pumps iron with a vengeance. She smokes. She's also handy with a garrote, a cross bow and a pistol. Never, never take a bath with her.

With just this as a plot Murphy's Law might have been an efficient, violent and reasonably entertaining Bronson movie. What I like about it is the gimmick -- the relationship between Murphy and a foul-mouthed young thief named Arabella McGee (played by Kathleen Wilhoit). Murphy had been handcuffed to Arabella at the stationhouse after he was arrested. When he broke out he had to take her along with him. A movie cliché? Sure. I think it works because of Murphy's tough stoicism and Arabella's creative and energetic profanity. There's nice chemistry between Bronson and Wilhoit. Wilhoit looks more like a tomboy than a cutesy starlet, more a gamin rough around the edges. She's a good actress and holds her own with Bronson's screen charisma. When the handcuffs finally come off thanks to Arabella's lock- picking skills, she decides to stick around with Murphy. If he can clear his name, he'll clear hers as being an accomplice in the escape. And off they go, with Murphy now fighting a three-front war. Freeman is after him. A cop who hates his guts is after him. And a mob smoothie he beat up is after him. The climax is a rough battle between Murphy and Freeman in a dark, gloomy building already loaded with some of her corpses. Arabella proves useful. Murphy proves capable.

Sherlock Holmes Faces Death

"Come along, Watson. We haven't a moment to waste. I only hope we shan't be too late!"
Sherlock Holmes, who was born January 6, 1854, came out of retirement in 1942 at the request of Universal Pictures to pursue WWII arch criminals threatening Britain and frightening aristocratic young women. Now 88, Holmes uses a substance much like Botox, hair dye and a high fiber diet to maintain that familiar appearance so many have commented on, to his intense irritation, as resembling the actor Basil Rathbone. He is, as always, aided by his companion, Dr. John Watson, now 90, and resembling Nigel Bruce, who over the years preferred to inject himself with monkey gland extracts from Switzerland to maintain an active but confused middle age.

In Sherlock Holmes Faces Death, Holmes will confront one of the most dastardly of plots, with murder employed as a careless tool to achieve unspeakably selfish ends. It concerns the Musgrave Manor, a hulking, ancient mansion of hidden passages and dark crypts, where the time is always night and the weather is always howling winds and rain. Now the manor, of course, is used as a convalescent center for shell-shocked British officers. Watson volunteered to supervise their care. "What is this Musgrave Manor? A blinkin' prison?" says a sailor near closing time at The Rat and The Raven Pub. It's 1942 in wartime England. "That ain't the worst it's been called, not that I'm one for speedin' stories, heh, heh, but we knows what we knows," says the publican."Where is this Musgrave Manor?" "Down the road apiece. You'll see it when you pass the old iron gates. Only don't loiter. You won't be welcome, not by the Musgraves. They've been sittin' there, lords of the manor, since time was. If those old walls could speak they'd tell you things that'd raise the hairs on yer head."

And there is The Musgrave Ritual, the recitation of ancient lines that must be spoken by the next heir of the Musgraves. How does it go? "..."Where shall he go? Deep down below. Away from the thunder, let him dig under..." Before long Sally Musgrave is reciting the ritual amidst dark shadows and lightening. Outside, the echoing trees are pulled by a howling wind...a wind that slams open shutters and wreaks havoc amongst the drapes.

Sally Musgrave's elder brother has just been murdered. Her other brother has become head of the Musgraves. And Dr. Watson has called on Holmes to come to the manor and solve what appears to be an unsolvable and deadly mystery. Who is the hand behind it all? One of the twitchy officers? The doctor assisting Watson? The irritable housekeeper? The tipsy butler? We know this is far too complex for Inspector Lestrade. And then Holmes discovers that the ritual disguises a chess game only the bravest would want to play, with death and riches as rewards.

It takes Holmes only 68 minutes in movie time, in this MPI release nicely restored by the UCLA Film and Television Archive, to remind ourselves that nostalgia is everything it is cracked up to be and that Sherlock Holmes, even at 88 but looking good, will always be The Great Detective. And so the ingeniously complex Musgrave Ritual is deciphered, the most ruthless murderer in England is unmasked, and young Sally Musgrave is saved from a terrible fate. "Amazing, Holmes!" says John Watson. "Elementary, my dear Watson," says Sherlock Holmes.

East Side, West Side

A loyal, rich wife, a prowling husband with a slippery zipper, a murder...Barbara Stanwyck, James Mason, lots of melodrama
We're going to have to keep some things straight, so please pay attention. "A" is loyal, sincere and society-style rich. Her mom's even richer. She's in love with "B," a charming, compulsive philanderer and nicely turned-out cad. They're married. Every Thursday they go to Mom's mansion to have dinner for three. "C" is a luscious, high-gloss tramp who knows what she wants and when she wants it. Now that "B" is into the money, she might want to take up where things left off with him before he married "A." "D" is decent, honorable, and patriotic, with a past that's part detective, part U. S. spy. He loves "A," who sees him as a wonderful friend. He detests "B," and sees him for what he is, the rain on "A"'s obliviously happy parade. "E" is a nice kid to come home to after a hard day's work. She'd have dinner ready and the pillows plumped. "E" may seem a little bland but she's got great legs. She loves "D," but he's too decent to be anything but decent toward her.

With Mom observing, with the drinks poured, with easy morals on the East Side, with loving commitment on the West Side and with everyone extremely well groomed, the anguish starts and the tears flow. If it weren't for murder and two other elements, East Side, West Side would probably only be worth remembering by the fans of women's weepies. The murder and the hunt for the murderer take up the last half of the movie. Death provides some great, gloomy photography and some needed energy. Stanwyck as the murder suspect provides...I guess she provides the plot.

The best things about this movie, however, are those two other elements: Barbara Stanwyck and James Mason. Just for the record, Stanwyck is "A," Mason is "B," Ava Gardner is "C," Van Heflin is "D," and Cyd Charisse is "E." And we shouldn't forget Gale Sondergard, one of Hollywood's great character actors who plays Stanwyck's mother. Mason may pull the wool over Bab's eyes (and we kind of like him when he does), but Sondergard, as gracious and as smooth as old gold dollars, is a woman to be wary of when she smiles sympathetically.

One can understand why Stanwyck agreed to the movie. She was still a major name-above- the-title star, but she was on the down slope of age. East Side, West Side gave her a chance to play believably younger than she was, to look stylishly dressed and coifed at all times, to move around in the kind of upper-crust apartments only Hollywood could decorate, to emote everything from love to regret, from anxiety to calm resolution. It's her movie, and she risked loosing it only when James Mason decided to take the intriguing part of the hopeless, hapless, assured and self-deceiving cad Stanwyck has married. Stanwyck remains Stanwyck, one of Hollywood's rare stand-alone actresses on whom any film she's in seems always to focus on her. Mason usually had that same affect. He could come off as cruel (The Seventh Veil), or a rogue (The Wicked Lady) or hopelessly sad (Odd Man Out), but it was hard not to concentrate on him. When cruel, he could be romantic. When a rogue, he could be dangerous and good company. When hopelessly sad, he could embody feelings close to tragedy. But, my goodness, just look at the roles he picked to play when he came over to Hollywood in the late Forties. Mason made his own choices. He was intelligent and a risk taker. He liked working for first-rate directors. He often made possible small films by agreeing to star in them. He was a superb film actor. And here he is in East Side, West Side as Barbara Stanwyck's husband, a man unable to keep his pants zipped.

Stanwyck brings authenticity to the movie, even though it's all Hollywood. She has to contend with too many major characters and too many balls in the air. Mason, however, makes us like the situation. Two scenes toward the end of the movie, the first when he has a conversation with Gale Sondergard as Stanwyck's mother, and the second when he leaves a message over the phone to be delivered to Sondergard, are both high-class bits of immensely satisfying comeuppance acting.

Mason had a long career and played in some real doozies, but I can't think of a performance of his I've seen that I didn't enjoy. Try him in The Reckless Moment, (1946) a great film directed by Max Ophuls, or, at the end of his career, in The Shooting Party (1985). As for Stanwyck, there are a lot of movies to like. For melodrama, death and under-appreciated Hollywood angst, try The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946).

The Duel at Silver Creek

There's not much to be done with names like "Brown Eyes" Lacy and "Lighting" Tyrone
You probably shouldn't expect too much from a western when you see that the characters have names like The Silver Kid, Marshall "Lightning" Tyrone, Johnny Sombrero and Opal "Brown Eyes" Lacy. Still, Duel at Silver Creek has one interesting twist. It's the bickering misunderstandings between the two male good-guy leads, The Kid and "Lightening," Audie Murphy plays Luke "The Silver Kid" Cromwell and Stephen McNally is "Lightening" Tyrone. (It's a shame that we don't give our top law enforcers nicknames like this anymore. J. Edgar "Lightening" Hoover carries authority.)

There's a lot of lethal claim-jumping going around in the mountains near Silver City. A gang of killers forces the claim holders to sign over their claims, then guns them down so there are no witnesses. Marshal "Lightening" Tyrone, the fastest draw around, plans to hunt them down, bring them to justice or kill them himself. One of the claim holders had a son. He's aiming to do the same. He calls himself The Silver Kid. He's handy with a gun and good at poker. When "Lightening," no dummy who knows he needs more firepower, offers a deputy's badge to The Silver Kid, the Kid accepts. This is going to be a fraught partnership, complicated by a slick mining engineer (Gerald Mohr), a lush, pink-bosomed femme fatale (Faith Domerque) and Dusty (Susan Cabot), the feisty, pants-wearing tomboy we know will smarten up right fine in a dress. We meet the gang leaders early on. There are no surprises as we watch one shoot down miners in cold blood and another strangle to death a wounded miner.

I like Audie Murphy. His early movies leave a lot to be desired, but he grew into a decent actor. In real life he was a man to admire. In Hollywood he gave it his best and learned. In The Duel at Silver Creek he's no match for the hack-written dialogue and those nicknames. Try on "Thanks for the warning, Brown Eyes," "We're trapped! Spread out," "That was a smart stunt! I almost plugged you," "Hey, Dusty, Lighting's back!" and "He didn't have the face of a killer, but he had the cold-steel look of one. I noticed his hands were quick and sure." Stephen McNally was a competent actor, but here he's saddled with providing a dull narration to the story. There's not much he can do with what the writers gave him. This was also one of director Don Siegel's earliest movies.

The video and audio transfers are nothing out of the ordinary. You might enjoy this movie if you like Audie Murphy, if you enjoy the turgid clichés of hack screen writing and if you have something else to do while you watch. I'm three for three. I'll give it thee stars out of five. You might not. . One last cliché to keep in mind. (And clichés aren't spoilers) Remember that in Hollywood, good-natured old coots are always gunned down.

The Corpse Vanishes

Lugosi had to make a buck so we have movies like this one. But don't miss him in The Black Cat
Only the glandular secretions -- and please don't ask for any more details -- of young virgins can keep the rapidly deteriorating body and mind of the crazed old amateur horticulturalist's wife fresh and youthful. Since, like most people except those taking part in medical trials, virgins seldom give up their secretions willingly, Dr. Lorenz (Bela Lugosi) arranges for them to be abducted and preserved. He'll do the extracting himself.

What a great cheese ball of a premise for a low budget horror movie. If The Corpse Vanishes turns out not to be the Havarti of horror, as a plain limburger it leaves an interesting aftertaste.

Sure, the acting is almost awful except for the actors fortunate enough to be playing the crazed dwarf (Angelo Rossitto, who later played The Master in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome); his crazed brute of a brother, Angel (Frank Moran), who grunts a lot and has a fetish for the virgins' hair; the crazed mother of the two (Minerva Urecal); the crazed wife (Elizabeth Russell), who sleeps in a plush coffin and, of course, the crazed doctor (Lugosi).

An enterprising young reporter, Patricia Hunter (Luana Walters) tracks down the doctor because of a strange orchid with a peculiarly sweet odor that had been worn by the victims. When the doctor and his wife invite Pat to stay the night, a raging storm immediately breaks out. That clue tells us some raging violence is about to erupt inside. Since it's well known that in Hollywood at this time all unmarried young women were virgins, Pat may have some unpleasant surprises to deal with. They include dark passages, a crusty laboratory where a near dead virgin is stored, a basement mausoleum and, later, a direct threat to Patricia's own glandular secretions. If she survives, what a story she'll have to give her editor.

If you sample this moist slice of moldy Velveeta (and why not? Don't be superior), don't judge Bela Lugosi by the company he keeps here. He had a huge impact in Dracula (1931), but my favorite movie of his is The Black Cat (1934). As Dr. Vitas Werdegast he's a sad, ironic man protective of his two young friends. When he finally takes a scalpel to Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff) and begins to flay the man alive, ah, well, it's a great scene.

Julie & Julia

Close to perfection: Meryl Streep's Julia Child and Julia Child's Boeuf Bourguignon
Julie is cutesy; Julia is grand. That just about sums up Nora Ephron's movie, Julie & Julia.

Ephron has taken Julie Powell's tale of deciding to make every single one of the recipes in Mastering the Art of French Cooking and doing it in one year and Julia Child's memoir of her life in France with her husband, Paul, as she learned to cook, plus other elements of her life. The result is a movie, half of which is a memorable delight and half of which is not bad, depending on your tolerance for New York's creative yuppie set

As Julie (Amy Adams), cute and smart and wanting to be writer, works her way through the recipes, we get to meet her superficial and more successful Manhattan friends, her loving husband who eventually gets tired of the project and his wife's self obsession with it, and the gradual recognition of others, including some in the writing game, of what she's doing. She keeps a blog and seems as devoted to it as she is to Julia Child. Back and forth we go in flashback as we also see Julia Child (Meryl Streep) trying to find something to do in Paris where her husband has been assigned after the war, deciding to master great French cooking, and discovering that great cooking and eating well prepared food is what she enjoys the best. To the surprise of some, but not herself or her husband, she becomes a wonderful example of try, try again, hard work, indomitable perseverance and good humor...all voiced with her inimitable fluting exuberance. Within minutes we've forgotten Streep and are completely enchanted by one of our favorite people.

The drawback to the movie is that Julie Powell's quest seems increasingly self-centered and insignificant compared to Julia Child's quest. With Julie we get all the requisite clichés of New York's younger set, including stylishly improvised dinner parties, a 900 square foot apartment (above a pizza restaurant), romantic tussles on the sofa, the anguish of misunderstandings and disappointments.

Ah, but with Julia we are on a magnificent quest on a completely different level...to conquer doubt; to do things right even if it means dropping spoons on a floor; to make and keep friends; to take cooking seriously, but not oneself; and with Paul to have a happy, mutually supportive and very lusty partnership. It would take a shrewd and skilled actor to stand up to Streep's extraordinary ability to channel Julia Child's personality, manners and voice. Stanley Tucci, by underplaying, makes Paul Child into what he was in life, the rock upon which Julia Child depended.

Not much in the movie, to Nora Ephron's credit, is played for easy laughs. The movie may generate endless platefuls of warm smiles and nods, but that's because Ephron and Streep have managed the remarkable feat of giving us the Julia Child we learned to love and learn from through her television programs. Julia Child on the screen is the woman we saw and remember with such affection. If only Ephron, with Streep's signature on the contract, had just dumped the Julie part and given us all Julia.

Doc Martin

"That's Dr. Ellingham, if you please, and what's all this moaning about a little diarrhea?"
Curmudgeons, if blessed with good writers, can be satisfying house guests. They're irascible, oblivious, often insulting (sometimes unintentionally), but usually with a hint of endearing rehabilitation. Dr. Martin Ellingham, formerly a top-rank London surgeon who now practices general medicine in the Cornish town of Portwenn, not only has first-rate writers, he's blessed by having as his impersonator the actor Martin Clunes.

Dr. Ellingham ("Martin or Dr. Ellingham, please. Not 'Doc Martin!'"), during one simple operation, found himself overwhelmed and unable to continue. The sight of blood suddenly sickened him, not a good thing for a surgeon. It stopped his career cold. He retrained and accepted the job of Portwenn's GP, far away from London and from the people who'd learned of his phobia.

But Doc Mar...Dr. Ellingham...seems to have a gene missing in his make-up. He is all too frank, oblivious to human courtesies, awkward, means well but has one of the worst bed- side manners in miles. If you're a young boy who has sprained an arm, an elderly gentleman whose wife is using too much hormone cream, a well-intentioned busy-body who stops by for tea or a cancer patient, don't expect much from the doctor by way of chit chat or hand holding. Even with an actor as good as Clunes, this could be a tiresome one-joke premise, except that Portwenn has a classic collection of idiosyncratic residents, all played by some skilled British actors. There's Doc Martin's aunt, Joan Norton, played by the fine Stephanie Cole, so good in Waiting for God. Joan is an elderly, brisk, no-nonsense woman (wise, too, of course) who wrings a chicken's neck to prepare it for dinner. She lives by herself competently on her farm. There's Bert Large, played by the equally fine Ian McNeice. Bert is Portwenn's handyman and plumber. He's a short man so fat he prefers to give the orders while he sits and trains his son to do all the work. There's the town's policeman who is big, competent, young, shy and concerned about...ah...size. The town's schoolteacher, who cannot understand how Doc Martin can be so obtuse, is about Doc Martin's age, not married and... we'll have to see. Maybe something will happen in season two. It certainly didn't look like romance when, at the end of season one, Doc Martin helpfully mentions to her the possible causes of bad breath right after she unexpectedly kisses him, something he was too ill at ease to initiate himself. There's an assortment of small town biddies, blokes and giggling teenager girls who all love a bit of gossip. Periodically showing up for one-time parts are such established actors as Richard Johnson, Celia Imrie and John Alderton.

Doc Martin finds that in Portwenn he has to deal with human nature as often as he has to deal with diarrhea. But with human nature he hasn't a clue. Still, when he suspects something is wrong with a patient, he's not only usually right but he'll do whatever it takes whoever he offends to get good care for the person. Because the quality of the wring is so high, the installments are amusing and satisfying. Good actors make Portwenn's residents more like odd but possibly real people than the usual cut-out yokels. Portwenn itself is a star, too. The town is right on the Cornish coast, picturesque as all get out, with a friendly pub, sea air and easy jaunts down country roads to some beautiful scenery.

Most of all is Martin Clunes as Dr. Ellingham. Clunes is a big man with a large head, large ears and a wide mouth. He's not handsome. Clunes, however, is a fine actor who can dominate a scene. He also can effortlessly project cluelessness, umbrage and impatience...and do so while he also makes us realize Doc Martin is almost an innocent when it comes to human interactions.

Doc Martin is superior entertainment.

Fear Is the Key

"You're mad! You must be insane!" cries Sarah Ruthven. "I've got nothing to lose," snarls John Talbot
Watching Fear Is the Key is almost exactly like reading Alistair MacLean's adventure novel on which the movie is based. Or any of MacLean's adventure novels, for that matter. The action is fast, furious and often incomprehensible. The plot roars straight ahead without a care for plausibility, coincidence or loose ends. Women are scarce and irrelevant. The hero can do anything.

MacLean had one great strength, and it's a strength a lot of adventure writers would kill for. He knew how to set up a plot that would capture a reader straight off, and then never let the tempo slow down, always building one readable action sequence after another, however improbable. Fear Is the Key was one of his earlier novels. It holds up as a good action read to finish in a day or two.

The movie is not as good. Novels let us create our own mind images of the action and the ambiance. (Louisiana bayous and tidal swamps are great places to imagine.) Fear Is the Key, the movie, has a lot of action. But since there's no room for our own images in a movie, we're stuck with seeing exactly what the talents of the director, the faces of the actors and the pictures from the cinematographer force us see. It's harder to ignore improbabilities.

The opening, like so many of MacLean's books, has great hooks. We watch and listen to a man on a short-wave radio talk to the pilot of a small cargo plane flying somewhere over the Gulf of Mexico. We hear the man on the ground talk to a young woman on the plane. Then suddenly the plane's pilot yells that an aircraft is firing on them. We hear bullet strikes, screams, the long dive and the crash into the ocean. We don't know what's going on but by now we're interested.

Three years later we meet the man again. John Talbot (Barry Newman), grim and surly, is driving down the Louisiana coast looking for trouble. He finds it, slugging cops, insulting a judge, making a courtroom escape and shooting a court constable, taking a young woman hostage and then spending the next 15 minutes or so on one of the longest car chases I've seen. With police in pursuit and his hostage wishing she were anywhere else, Talbot takes his stolen car screeching and swerving down city streets, across cane fields, smashing through roadblocks, roaring onto a ferry, clattering over wooden roads, and bouncing over potholes. It's kind of boring after awhile because it goes on for so long and -- key point here -- we have no idea what this tough guy's motivation could be. It's forty minutes before the outline of some reasonable motivation takes shape and 60 minutes before the point of the movie is reached. During this time I found it hard to stay interested despite all the violent action and creepy characters. The last forty minutes, however, when plot and motivation finally meet, turn out to be satisfyingly brutal and filled to the brim with revenge. Along the way, in addition to Newman, we meet a puzzling big business natural gas owner played by Ray McAnally; his daughter (the hostage) played by Suzy Kendall; a smoothie crook played by John Vernon; a possibly corrupt cop played by Dolph Sweet (in a fine performance) and a cool hit man with a nearly full head of dark hair played by a young Ben Kingsley. Except for Kendall, a looker but no actress who has an irritating voice that sounds like a little girl was combined with a munchkin, they all do fine jobs.

Newman, who played tough guy heroes in a number of movies during this time, is grim and capable to a fault. His character becomes understandable only in the last five minutes. Newman has to play him as he's written...and Talbot is written to be an ace driver, skilled scuba diver, knowledgeable explorer of an off-shore oil rig, superb pilot and engineer for an undersea submersible, dominant with his fists and his feet, perfection when it comes to crashing through French doors and always ready with an ironic comeback. In other words, he's one of MacLean's typically over-achieving, unbeatable heroes, and completely unbelievable. In my opinion, Barry Newman was a fine actor when he wasn't called upon to be this kind of Hollywood hero. It seems to me he has just gotten better as he has aged. He was terrific in The Limey.

The movie, like Alistair MacLean's books, gives us action and more action, sketchy motivation and enough loose ends to make a big ball of yarn. Still, I thought the book was fun. The movie is fun for the first 10 minutes and the last 40 minutes.

Berlin Express

International intrigue with a lesson for us all. If only they'd dropped the lesson
Like the curate's egg, parts of Berlin Express are excellent. But the other parts? Be prepared for conscientious lectures, conventional and dull, about how life might be for us all if the U.S., Britain, France and the Soviets could work together and be jolly doing it. Divided Germany right after WWII is the subject, but we get the idea: We all just need to be friends. An anonymous narrator keeps telling us this, as well as pointing out what we're already seeing. It's no accident, I think, that Dore Schary supervised the making of this movie. If there was any possibility of pounding inspiring messages into an otherwise good movie, Schary was the producer with the mallet.

Imbedded like those old-time prizes in clumps of stale, sticky Cracker Jack are the good parts. These are worth digging for. We're in the middle of a Nazi plot to keep the victors from working together, all to better the chances of these grubby but dangerous survivors of the Third Reich to divide and conquer. The humane Dr. Bernhardt, a German who opposed Hitler and survived, is on a mission from Paris to Berlin by train to address an international conference on his plans for a unified and democratic Germany. There's a plot to kill him. When a grenade on a snack tray goes off in Dr. Bernhardt's compartment...is it good-bye, Dr. Bernhardt?

Four travelers on the train, strangers to each other, find themselves thrown together with Lucienne (Merle Oberon), the doctor's secretary, to find out what really happened. There's Robert Lindley (Robert Ryan), an agricultural expert from the U. S.; Sterling (Robert Coote), a teacher from Britain who will work to develop Germany's education institutions; Perrot (Charles Korvin), a Frenchman who was with the maquis and is now a businessman; and Soviet Army lieutenant Maxim Kiroshilov (Roman Toperow), returning to the Soviet Union. Can they overcome differences to work together successfully in Berlin to learn the truth? Well, sure. That's the whole point of the movie, isn't it?

Why is Berlin Express so good in parts? Most of the movie is set in the bombed out desolation of Berlin. It's a grim, desperate place. The reality of Germany under the control of the occupying armies is clear. Cigarettes are the common currency, useful for buying potatoes or bits of coal, or, if you're a G.I., women and liquor. Director Jacques Tournier gives us some first-rate, tense scenes of interrogation, hunts down rubble-filled streets at night, a tawdry German nightclub in a ruined building, a tacky mind-reading act and impending violence in a cavernous, bombed-out brewery. You can't beat a dying clown for morbid interest, and Tournier gives us a doozy, with the clown in full costume, a big smile painted on his face, running and staggering down brick-filled streets, bleeding from a bullet wound in his back and pursued by those intent on finishing him off. He has an effective death scene, too, in that nightclub.

There's no sign of romance or even a spark or two between Merle Oberon and Robert Ryan, just a bit of uneasy flirting. They raise the question, what's the point of the two of them? Charles Korvin, Coote and Toperow all do fine jobs. Reinhold Schunzel dominates his scenes as an aged friend of Dr. Bernhardt who learns too late that he made a terrible bargain. I suppose he's forgotten now, at least in America, but Schunzel was a fine actor. For raucous and corrupt good spirits, put on Criterion's The Three Penny Opera (1931) and watch Schunzel as Tiger Brown pair off with Mack the Knife to sing Kanonen-Song

The international intrigue parts of Berlin Express are just fine, especially when we realize we'd better not trust just anyone. The laid-on messages of international cooperation are, unfortunately, dull and heavy-handed. They slow down the plot appreciably whenever Dr. Bernhardt, Lucienne or the narrator decide we need to be reminded of what the real purpose of the movie is. Still, like the curate's egg, parts of Berlin Express are tasty.

In the Loop

If you've decided to start a war in the Middle East, better hope Armando Iannucci doesn't make a movie about it
This is a flight of far-fetched imagination, of course, but In the Loop imagines that for some reason the United States and Britain, a kind of tail-wagging Britain along for the petting it expects to get, are determined to invade a Middle-eastern country. As in real life, perhaps, In the Loop never gets around to explaining why.

It doesn't need to. When the moist ideologues, the ambitious bureaucrats, the supple young staff members, the high media governmental power-houses, the cautious generals, the well- intentioned stumblers and the cover-your-rear time-servers are through, we not only have a war no one can explain, we have a glorious two hours of startlingly funny profanity, articulate and quick dialogue, festering verbal maneuvers to get the upper-hand and the kind of political wit that seems to come naturally to some British writers. There are no heroes here, just a collection of elected and non-elected public servants, British and American, who are far more concerned with finding advantages in the emergencies of the minute and how they might effect careers than any such concepts as the public good. If war is simply the extension of diplomacy, In the Loop gives us war (with that Middle-eastern country) that is an extension of self-serving jockeying to stay in the loop. In the Loop, let me add quickly again, is a very, very funny movie.

When Simon Foster (Tom Hollander) Britain's bumbling Minister for International Development, says "war is unforeseeable" during a public interview, it appears to some that he has strayed off the government's message of the day. The prime minister's foul-mouthed and powerful press spokesman, Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi) takes action. After stripping off some hide, Tucker sends poor Simon to Washington on a "fact-finding mission" to keep him out of the way. Simon, as usual, just makes things worse. Before long we're seeing how Washington really works, with all those committees, how 10 Downing Street really works, with how the United Nations really works. No one in this movie escapes, even the young, who are as eager to bed each other as they are to climb over each other's bodies to advance their bosses' needs and their own careers.

To match the fast, fast dialogue, In the Loop is blessed with a superb assortment of actors who could step into most real political roles right now. Peter Capaldi as Malcolm Tucker strides through the movie throwing off vivid obscenities. It would be virtually impossible to repeat any of his sentences in front of your mum. Tom Hollander is, as usual, first-rate. He's an excellent actor who manages to gain our sympathy even while bumbling through crises. Just a few of the other great performances come from Gina McKee as Simon Foster's prime aide; Mimi Kennedy as Karen Clarke, a senior State Department official who wants the war talk to slow down and who is just as determined to come out on top; and David Rasche as Linton Barwick, another State Department top official who knows how to organize a secret war committee, how to jovially rewrite minutes to his view and how to actually start a war. When these two share screen time in committee meetings, the self-serving maneuvering is delicious and unnerving. There's not a dud role or a dud actor in the movie.

If you enjoy acerbic political wit at the expense of politicians and public servants who are absolutely sure they know what they're doing (and who we let get away with it), In the Loop is not to be missed. Sure, it's political, but it's funny, with a brittle and corrosive screenplay and some extraordinary actors, most of whom you've probably never heard of. Peter Capaldi is a lead character actor in Britain who also writes and directs. Americans might remember him as the frightened Vera Reynolds in Prime Suspect 3 and as a helpful friend in Smilla's Sense of Snow. Tom Hollander can seemingly play just about anything. I especially liked his flamboyant and drunken Guy Burgess in Cambridge Spies and his quiet, shrewd role as Tom Jericho's boss and protector in Enigma.

Bulldog Drummond's Secret Police

A dull dark old house comedy caper for the Bulldog. The last four minutes aren't bad
Where were we? Phyllis Claverling is once more impatiently waiting for Hugh Drummond to make her his wife. She's been left standing at the altar several times already while Hugh -- 'Bulldog' to friends and enemies alike -- goes chasing off to solve ingenious crimes. This time the wedding is scheduled to take place at Drummond's Rockingham estate. Little does Phyllis know that a decidedly odd professor, horrid murder, a secret cipher and a hidden fortune somewhere on the estate will postpone the nuptials once again.

By now John Barrymore, who had lent a faded, poignant but authoritative presence to the part of Colonel Neilson, head of Britain's most secret service, had gone. Colonel Neilson is now played by the fine, skeletal and unauthoritative H. B. Warner, an actor who was much more interesting on the rare occasions when he played a villain. Hanging on in the series is John Howard, bland and manly as Drummond, Reginald Denny as Drummond's twit of a best friend, Heather Angel as Phyllis and, best of all, E. E. Clive as 'Tenny' Tennison, Drummond's aged, efficient and acerbic valet.

Dithering and eccentric Professor Downie shows up at Rockingham just after the wedding party has arrived to inform Drummond and his wedding guests that a fabled treasure in jewels belonging to Charles I, worth at least one million pounds, is hidden somewhere in the dank passages underneath Rockingham Tower. Foolish legend? Professor Downie's corpse, discovered later that evening, implies not.

Once Hugh starts investigating, the clichés of a dark old mansion storyline kick in: Dripping passageways, a spiked ceiling clattering slowly downward, a swirling abyss of tidal water...all good stuff but a little late to save this 56-minute programmer. Before we get to them we have to wade through a four-minute dream sequence in which Hugh flashes back through movie clips to his past adventures and wedding frustrations. This time-wasting sequence is just more semi-amusing distraction that the screenwriters use to eat up time, to economise and to keep us away from exploring the bowels of Rockingham. The serio-comedy mystery is half way over before anyone even starts thinking about creeping down secret passages. By then the writers have told us who the murderer is.

I'm afraid there's not much to Bulldog Drummond's Secret Police except tired comedy unless you, like the Bulldog and Phyllis, thrive on delayed gratification.

3:10 to Yuma

This taut, classic Western demonstrates what craftsmanship in making movies is all about
There is a lonely train called the 3.10 to Yuma / The pounding of the wheels is more like a mournful sigh

There's a legend and there's a rumor / When you take the 3.10 to Yuma

You can see the ghosts of outlaws go ridin' by... / In the sky... / Way up high...

Now that we've got out of the way one of the most awful opening theme songs any Western has been cursed with (sung by Frankie Laine), let's talk about one of the best-crafted Westerns Hollywood ever made...a fine example of getting the job done superbly and without phony flash, burdensome moral lessons, extra hormones or intense "acting." 3:10 to Yuma is the real goods.

It's the short, unadorned story of Dan Evans (Van Heflin), a poor, stubborn rancher in the third year of a drought. He needs water. He needs money. His wife loves him and works as hard as he does. He worries how she's able to put up with all the misfortune. His two young sons look up to him but he'd like to leave them with a memory of him of more than just a hard-working failure. When they're out rounding up cattle the three witness a stagecoach holdup. The youngest boy wants his father to stop the holdup and capture the robbers. He knows with young certitude his father could do it all. Dan tells the boys to be quiet. As played by Van Heflin, we accept Dan's integrity and his earnest desire to do something for his family.

It's also the story of Ben Wade (Glenn Ford). He and his gang rob anything they can get money from. Wade makes it a point of pride that he kills a person only if there were no other way to protect his own safety. Ben Wade is intelligent. He's charming, tough, and knows how to get around a woman or get inside a man's head. As played by Glenn Ford, we're nearly captured by star charisma and likability. We know Ben Wade is a smart, sly villain, but we admire his confidence and smiling way of undermining another man's confidence.

Dan Evans, desperate for money, agrees for $200 to take the captured Ben Wade to Contention, where he'll put him on the 3:10 train to Yuma and the Yuma Territorial Prison. Ben Wade knows that his gang will sooner or later figure out that he's being taken to Contention to await the train. He even tells Evans how they'll find out. When they show up and rescue him, they'll kill Evans and anyone helping him.

This taut, simple story is told with economy and tension. There's no angst or "acting," no allusions to the director's favorite causes, no close-ups of the make-up artists' skill at creating blood clots. In fact, there's not much bloodshed or violence until Dan finally has to find a way to get Ben from the hotel in Contention to the train station, where the train is waiting, and where so is Ben Wade's gang.

Although there are some fine subsidiary performances, the movie is all about Evans and Wade. And that means that Heflin and Ford had to be at the top of their game to sustain this 92-minute movie. Dan Evans is a man much like Heflin's Dan Starrett in Shane. He's more resourceful than we might think, but mainly he's an honorable, earnest man who might be tempted by Ben Wade's coaxing tongue, but not for long. He wants the $200 for his family and because he knows he's doing the right thing. Unlike the 2007 remake, there's little question but that his wife loves him and that his two sons look up to him. Glenn Ford rarely played bad guys (watch him in Lust for Gold), but he makes an outstanding one here. His shooting of two men at the start of the movie, one of them a member of his gang, is fast and startling. But it's Ford's winning personality that makes Wade so attractive and so dangerous. Maybe sometimes, when he dallies with a tired, pretty barmaid, he even believes some of what he says.

A good deal of the movie is spent in a hotel room in Contention with Wade in handcuffs lying on the bed and Evans holding a shotgun, peering uneasily out the window looking for signs of Wade's gang. The interplay between Ford and Heflin - easy and underplayed - is a pleasure to watch. Ford shows how he can worm his way into Evans' mind, undermining his will and raising doubts. Heflin shows how tempting and frustrating just thinking about what Wade is saying must be. The final shootout is well-staged and violent; the conclusion is satisfying. There are no attempts by rich Hollywood directors and producers to bring Tinsel- town tragedy to a good story.

There are echoes of High Noon, which the craftsmanship of this movie and the performances of Ford and Heflin quickly dispel. There are a few clichés that are handled so respectfully, so matter-of-factly and so quickly that they are easy to forgive. The budget for 3:10 to Yuma (1957) was probably, even in 2007 dollars, less than Russell Crowe's salary alone in 3:10 to Yuma (2007). If you like movies and appreciate well-crafted stories, 3:10 to Yuma (1957) might find a place in your collection.

The Valley of Gwangi

Ray Harryhausen and some cowboys capture an angry gwangi. Look out!
Valley of the Gwangi, as long as you're easily satisfied, is a movie to enjoy in spite of itself. It's a light-hearted but leaden-footed dinosaur adventure film, with a group of turn-of-the- century cowboys versus a gwangi. The idea is fun, the acting is adequate (with one exception), the script is workmanlike and the direction is dull. It seems to take forever to get to the good stuff. What it has going for it, starting half way through the movie, is the gwangi - an allosaurus - that seems to be constantly angry. The joy of the movie is that this giant, meat-eating, top-of-the-food chain creature is brought to life by the stop-motion artistry of Ray Harryhausen.

Down Mexico way at the turn of the century, T. J. Breckenridge (Gila Golan) stars in and manages a ramshackle circus, Champ Connors (Richard Carlson) and a handful of American and Mexican cowboys help out. Old flame Tuck Kirby (James Franciscus) shows up and wants to buy T. J.'s wonder horse, Omar. No way, says T. J. And she tells him that she's got an even better horse act ready to be introduced...a tiny horse-like creature she purchased with no questions asked. But eccentric Professor Horace Bromley (Lawrence Naismith), a paleontologist who is determined to prove his theory of the humanoids, identifies the whinnying little thing as an eohippus, an ancestor of the horse, which supposedly has been extinct for millions of years. When gypsies steal the eohippus to return it to a hidden valley, off in pursuit goes T. J., Tuck, Champ and the Professor, aided by Lope, a ten-year-old Mexican lad and two wranglers from T. J.'s circus. And finally, after nearly 50 minutes, the 96-minute movie really starts.

The movie, thanks to Ray Harryhausen, gives us the goods with three first-rate scenes. There's the entrance to the valley on horseback, with some strange scenery and then a quick attack by a pterodactyl that scoops up Lope. Lope's rescue is something to see. There's the great set piece of cowboys versus the angry allosaurus, with the gwangi raging after cowboy ordeurves and the cowboys regrouping to lasso the gwangi, then the gwangi breaking free to have a life-or-death battle with a oneceratops (or whatever a one-horned triceratops is called). And finally there's the raging gwangi tearing apart the Mexican town (climaxing inside a burning cathedral) where he was brought to be the lead attraction for T. J.'s circus.

Nothing about the movie is first-rate...except these three scenes. They're rousers. Franciscus does an okay job as a generic, happy-go-lucky cowboy hero and Richard Carlson, now 57, has aged into a cross between Pete Postlethwaite and Randolph Scott. He's fine but nothing special as T. J.'s protective circus manager. Gila Golan, however, is a lush young woman who can barely act, much less ride a horse. She made a handful of films. I'd swear she was dubbed.

In some ways, The Valley of the Gwangi, with it's turn of the century setting and cowboys roping a dinosaur, is charming. If only it had better actors and a smarter first-half script.

To see a handful of brave souls do amusing battle with various Harryhausen creatures, try Mysterious Island. It even has Captain Nemo, as well as some considerably better actors, such as Joan Greenwood and Herbert Lom, For grinning, vicious, clattering skeletons waving swords around, you can't do better than Harryhausen's Jason and the Argonauts.

Along with Ray Harryhausen, the movie owes a lot to Jerome Moross who composed the film score. He uses echoes from his great score for The Big Country to make Valley of the Gwangi more impressive than it deserves, especially in the cowboys-versus-gwangi set piece. So four stars with Harryhausen (and Moross). Three stars without them.

Now if you really want to see how to capture a gwangi, or at least a Tyrannosaurus Rex, I'd recommend you watch Prehistoric Park and the adventures of Nigel Marvin.

Den vita lejoninnan

Rolf Lassgard makes a fine Kurt Wallander in this chilly tale of murder, detection and political assassination
For fans of Henning Mankell's mystery novels featuring the Swedish police inspector, Kurt Wallander...

...for fans of the recent three-story television series, Wallander, with Kenneth Branagh as the Ystad inspector...

...try this Swedish film, The White Lioness (Den Vita Lejoninnan), made in 1996. The movie doesn't have the intricacies, character depth or lengthy and involved plot threads of the book, but come on now. The White Lioness is 500 pages of densely written prose. The movie runs just 104 minutes.

In this time the movie manages to pack the basic story line, which is a tricky, serious story about a political assassination, planned in South Africa to take place in Scandinavia, with action, steady detection and style. Equally important, The White Lioness gives us an excellent Kurt Wallander played by the Swedish actor Rolf Lassgard. We have a Wallander who is in his forties, a big, rumpled man edging toward being seriously overweight, especially around the jowls, a lonely man who drinks too much, a cop who is authoritative and respected. Unlike the Branagh version, as good as it was, this Kurt Wallander, while lonely and sad at times, doesn't make such a big deal of it.

With Wallander, we're in the middle of what seems to be a puzzle: An attractive real estate agent goes missing and is later found in the boot of a car with a bullet hole in her forehead. Unlike Wallander, we saw it happen and why. Right from the start we know white extremist Afrikaners in South Africa are planning to assassinate somewhere in Scandinavia a major South African leader. We even meet the icy ex-KGB man this group has hired to mastermind the operation. He's called Konovalenko. Jesper Christensen plays him with calm, convincing ruthlessness. We meet Victor Mabasha (Tshamano Sebe), the hit-man who will work with Konovalenko and who finds himself out of his depth. We see the two of them establish themselves in a small, empty house in the snowy countryside outside Ystad. We meet a Cape Town police detective named John September (Basil Appolis) who knows something is happening but not why or how or when.

We see a lot of Ystad, a lot of Swedish countryside, all of it cold and covered with the dirty remnants of old snow. We see a good deal of Cape Town, too, and the shantytowns where the blacks must live, even if they're police inspectors. We tag along after Wallander in Ystad and Cape Town, watching him laboriously put the pieces together. On those cold days and cold, cold nights around Ystad, cold murder takes place, The final shootout, with a high- powered rifle versus a car, is so startling and well visualized that we're almost as upset and queasy afterwards as Kurt Wallander was.

Just as with the book, The White Lioness is as much a vivid and complicated story of the planning and foiling of an assassination as it is a look at what South Africa had been and, with Nelson Mandela, is on the brink of becoming. The movie is part tricky plotting, part police procedural (interspersed with effective sequences of chases and violence) and part mild political primer. The White Lioness worked so well for me because it gives a fine Kurt Wallander by Rolf Lassgard, thoughtful, smart and probably tied too closely to his job for his own good.

La fille de Monaco

Lusty female ambition using sex meets middle-aged male hormones in an unsatisfying, confused comedy of rue
For those with multiple personalities, The Girl from Monaco (La Fille de Monaco, directed by Anne Fontaine), could possibly do more good than therapy.

Is it a light romantic comedy of a middle-aged lawyer's ego and the uninhibited sexual spirit of a ditzy television weather girl, combined with a trial for murder and hints of the Russian mafia? Is it a male melodrama of irony and rue where a middle-aged lawyer's gonads lead him into humiliating situations that are at once humorous and embarrassing, and where an erotic and selfish female weather reader is manipulating his hormones? Is it a sad set of experiences where lust and manipulation lead to unexpected but justifiable justice, only leavened by the sense that certain actions were well-served and that the protagonists understand, finally, their behavior?

In other words, The Girl from Monaco is a movie with, at times, great charm and amusement, but which falls on its face because the director cannot make up her mind what she wants her movie to be about. With each shift into the next line of the story, we can't help but finally realize that the line we just left is something we'd rather stay with. Fontaine isn't deliberately leading us on, in my opinion, but she seems to keep changing her idea of the house she's building after construction has started.

Bertrand Beauvois (Fabrice Luchini) has traveled from Paris to Monaco to defend a woman charged with murdering a man she may or may not have been having an affair with. Beauvois is a top lawyer who wins his cases but seems to have less luck with women. He's a whiz with words, though. Because the murdered man was a Russian with Russian mafia connections, Beauvois is assigned protection, Christophe Abadi (Roschdy Zem). He's a tall, lean, taciturn man who insists on doing his job. When Beauvois, a pale, unimpressive-looking man with a modest sense of humor along with a sense of his own importance, meets Audrey Varelia (Louise Bourgoin), the ditzy, uninhibited weather reader, we can see speculation move to lust with all the single-minded drive of a teen-ager looking at a Playboy centerfold. What we also see is Christophe's disapproval...and we see Audrey's uninhibited, free-spirited ways with her body that completely capture this little lawyer. Trust me, this all is played for amusement centering on the fragile egos of middle-aged men who actually believe gorgeous young women may fall for them. When we see what a collection of partying freeloaders Audrey runs with, the movie starts making us uneasy. When we see how casually manipulative Audrey can be, using her erotic charms to capture poor Bertrand by his hormones, it's hard not to smile...and be uneasy. All the while the silent and serious Christophe tries to keep Bertrand ready for the trial each day. As Christophe does his job, it turns out he might have a bit of history with Audrey. She seems to have known, in exactly the Biblical sense, just about every man she's ever met.

What can I say? Bertrand gets his. Christophe gets his. Audrey gets hers. I'm not talking death. Necessarily. And I'm not talking about grim irony. It's just that a movie, even one with all the finely nuanced amusement of the first third of this one, that ends with the audience likely giving a shrug hasn't, in my opinion, been able to hold itself together.

Fabrice Luchini is excellent. Roschdy Zem is impressive. And blond, built Louise Bourgoin, in her first movie, managed to keep me lusting after her even when the last thing I knew I'd want would be to find myself in Bertrand Beauvois's shoes. The movie isn't a mess by any means. It just doesn't know what it wants to be.

Campbell's Kingdom

"Bruce Campbell has more guts than the lot of you!" cries Jean Lucas. She's right. Not bad for a dying man.
There was a time in adventure novels and some movies when the hero was motivated and decent; when the bad guy was clearly unscrupulous; where romance was discrete and sex was nonexistent; where the writing was clear, descriptive and straightforward.

With Ralph Hammond-Innes (writing as Hammond Innes) we learned, thoroughly researched, about the North Sea, the Arabian Desert, whaling, Australia, Labrador, elephants, Morocco, the Arctic, the South Seas and a lot more. All this was found in his satisfyingly thick adventure novels. His best, in my view, were written between the late Forties and the late Sixties. Campbell's Kingdom is one of them...and the movie's not bad, either. There's gorgeous Canadian Rocky Mountain scenery, a ramshackle mining town named Come Lucky, a deep, forested valley called Campbell's Kingdom, naked greed, ruthless motivation, virile action...and Bruce Campbell, played by Dirk Bogarde.

Campbell travels to Come Lucky from England to see the high, cold valley his grandfather left him. The old man, who for years believed there was oil to be discovered in his valley, left it to Bruce hoping the young man could prove the dream was true. Bruce came to Campbell's Kingdom and Come Lucky thinking he has just six months to live. All he really wanted was to find a place to feel sorry for himself. Instead, Bruce finds himself up against Owen Morgan (Stanley Baker), the ruthless, driven construction boss who is building a big hydroelectric dam that, when shortly completed, will flood Campbell's Kingdom. If oil is found, it will stop the dam. If the dam is completed, it makes oil moot. Morgan rules in Come Lucky, and the men whose jobs depend on the dam are ready to play just as rough as Morgan wants them to. Campbell discovers there just may be some truth to old Campbell's claims, doesn't like being pushed by Morgan, and decides he won't sell. He'll find out the truth. He's aided by Jean Lucas (Barbara Murray) a young woman who helps run the small hotel in Come Lucky and has a story of her own, and by Boy Bladen (Michael Craig), who wrote an engineering report Morgan fiddled with, who really likes Jean, and who is just as decent as Bruce. By the time James Robertson Justice shows up as James MacDonald, who runs a small oil-drilling rig, it looks like rough action is going to break loose right in the middle of some beautiful scenery. It does. The climax is a terrific sequence that demonstrates dramatically what happens to a dam built with poor grade cement. One other moral: Fresh air and hard work can do wonders with an illness that promised death.

Campbell's kingdom gets off to a bit of a slow start as we learn about Bruce Campbell's health, about Campbell's Kingdom, the people of Come Lucky and the degree of Owen Morgan's ruthlessness. A quarter of the way in, though, the excitement kicks in. For the rest of the movie Bruce has to meet head on one crisis after another. Bruce Campbell finds unexpected reserves of resourcefulness requiring split-second timing, perilous tram rides, mountain road avalanches and blown bridges. No one beats another into the ground but there's a lot of action.

I've never thought Dirk Bogarde was convincing as a rough and tumble type, but he's much better here in most of the movie leading his few troops and outguessing Morgan than as the soulful, seemingly-dying-with-quiet-nobility Bruce Campbell we first encountered. In his younger years Bogarde knew how to give that sad look with a weary, resigned little smile that made the hearts of middle-aged matrons flutter. Stanley Baker, on the other hand, had the kind of face that just looks mean. Campbell uses his brain more often than Morgan, and that helps. They were both good enough actors to make the friction between their two characters work.

It would be an injustice to Barbara Murray not to mention that, perfectly acceptable as she was in movies like Campbell's Kingdom, she reached her absolute prime, and I mean prime, 17 years later as Madame Max Goesler in The Pallisers. She gave luster to maturity, experience, wit, desirability and charm.

Four movies have been made from Hammon-Innes' books. The Wreck of the Mary Deare (1959) manages to turn a suspenseful story into a dull courtroom slog. Hell Below Zero (1954), based on The White South, was turned into an Alan Ladd vehicle. It's not bad. I've not seen Snowbound (1948), based on The Lonely Skier. So it's best to start out with his novels. Pick one at random from the Fifties and dive in. You might like them a lot.

Bulldog Drummond's Revenge

The dreaded haxonite stolen, a four-day-old arm found and a frustrated Phyllis Claverling. This calls for Bulldog Drummond
Captain Hugh "Bulldog" Drummond was one of those British gentlemen of leisure who one assumes was mentioned in dispatches for gallantry during The Great War. These amateur sleuths had superb manners and upper-class attitudes. They solved some of England's most ingenious crimes during the Twenties and Thirties. According to Drummond's chronicler, H. C. McNeile, Drummond "has the appearance of an English gentleman: a man who fights hard, plays hard and lives clean...Only his eyes redeem his face. Deep-set and steady, with eyelashes that many women envy, they show him to be a sportsman and an adventurer." In Bulldog Drummond's Revenge, John Howard plays Drummond. The Bulldog is turned into a conventionally handsome man with a carefully groomed moustache and not much sign of life. It's a bland, pleasant performance.

The plot, told in 57 brisk minutes, has something to do with haxonite, a super explosive, often unstable, that can obliterate cities. A large sample is stolen from the inventor while he's flying his single-engine plane at night in the fog. When Hugh Drummond and his best friend, Algy Longworth (Reginald Denny, playing the epitome of the English twit), discover the suitcase (it had been tossed out of the plane attached to a parachute) on their way to meet Phyllis Claverling, Hugh's long time fiancée, all sorts of complications arise. There's the increasingly impatient Phyllis who wants a husband and not a detective, a hand reaching around a doorway to turn out the lights, a long train ride to Dover with a suspicious woman who looks so mannish she must either be a male in disguise or on heavy-duty hormones, and international spies. All this takes place, or course, at night. Phyllis despairs of ever getting Hugh to the altar. Algy's wife shows up briefly and then disappears, thankfully. She brings a shrill laugh that is to comedy what a drill is to dentistry. There's also a severed arm, a few days old, which makes an occasional appearance. And there is John Barrymore playing, in a few brief scenes, Colonel J. A. Nielson, head of Britain's most shadowy secret service. He's top billed, has little to do but be authoritative and lend his name to this enterprise. It's a poignant situation. Barrymore still can dominate any scene he's in.

E. E. Clive is one of the best things in the movie, and in the series. He plays Drummond's manservant, Tennyson. "Tenny" is an elderly snob, but marvelously competent, remarkably resourceful and, one surmises, probably smarter that Drummond. His performance brings some acerbic life to the movie. "Ah, Tenny, getting married is great fun, isn't it?" says Drummond. "In Switzerland, sir?" says Tenny, raising an eyebrow. "Anywhere, Tenny, anywhere!" Says Tenny, with finely tuned distaste, "It's a popular belief, sir."

Bulldog Drummond's Revenge is one of those many time-filling programmers from the past that do no harm. They're fun to watch every now and then.

3:10 to Yuma

1957: Great story and fine craftsmanship. 2007: Thirty minutes of angst are added and the story suffers
My take on 2007's 3:10 to Yuma? Ninety-two minutes for the 1957 original versus 122 minutes. Thirty-two listed actors of which 11 are credited (according to IMDb) versus 43 listed actors of which 32 are credited.

Taut craftsmanship with few obvious lessons versus morality Hollywood-style. No angst, just a great Western story versus so much angst (morality, redemption, failure, father/son, husband/wife, and so on) that I thought I'd never get the angst out of my clothes.

A tension-filled duel of wits and stubbornness between Van Heflin and Glenn Ford which ties them closer and closer together versus odd and unnecessary (except by Hollywood standards) hints of an attachment that dare not speak its name featuring Wade's psycho sidekick,

Great character acting versus great character acting.

Two fine lead performances versus two fine lead performances...but for Dan Evans I'll take Heflin's straightforward doggedness over Christian Bale's modern-day intensity. While I like Ford's and Russell Crowe's performances as Ben Wade, just as a matter of personal preference I like Ford's particular style of slyness and charisma as Wade a little better than Crowe's.

An ending that is tidy and quite satisfying versus an ending that tries to carry too much meaning.

Is it fair to judge a contemporary remake against the original? I think it probably is when the remake suffers (in my view) from contemporary Hollywood bloat. The original was a tight, small story put together by Hollywood craftsmen who knew how to tell and present a story on film. There just isn't, in my opinion, 30 minutes of better movie in the remake. I've watched the Ford/Heflin version a couple of times. I doubt that I'll revisit the Crowe/Bale version. For those who like movies, whichever version you wind up liking, watching both might be a worthwhile way to spend three-and-a-half hours.

Murdoch Mysteries

Turn-of-the-century Detective William Murdoch: Not bad, but without the squalor or much depth
Poor William Murdoch. Will he ever get a fair shake in the casting department? He's a police detective in a number of turn-of the-century mysteries set in gas-lit Toronto written by Maureen Jennings. They are good books, well written, detailed and intricate, and Murdoch is a fine protagonist. He's reasonably well educated, worked rough before he became a policeman and is a Catholic in a very Protestant town which has a largely Protestant police force. Murdoch is convinced that beating a confession out of a suspect -- the usual way of solving a crime -- is not as effective as using deduction and the new scientific methods that are being talked about. He's thoughtful, sincere and shrewd. He's not the most popular copper at his station, but he grudgingly earns the respect of his superior and most of his colleagues.

The Murdoch Mysteries is the second attempt by Canadian producers to bring Murdoch to television. The first consisted of three 90-minute programs based on three of Jennings' books. Murdoch's impostor didn't look much like Jennings' description but he was a skilled actor. It all started well but quickly drifted down into melodrama, with Murdoch in the third program involved with a loving street prostitute. With that highly unlikely development, not in the books, the axe came down on the show.

Murdoch Mysteries showed up a couple of years later. It's a conventional television approach with thirteen one-hour mysteries in a season, with two seasons finished and production started on the third. My impression is that the television producers and writers are caught between trying to bring Murdoch and his times to life and having a hit in the ratings. The series, considering that no one in their right mind on this side of the Atlantic is about to spend the kind of budget the BBC used to on production values for a series, looks good enough to be satisfying. The pressure of cranking out 13 mysteries a year is evident in stories that don't leave much time for character development or in plotting mysteries that are complex and don't cheat. The squalor and social injustice Maureen Jennings writes about are largely missing. The writers try for humor by frequently having Murdoch, who loves to apply science to solve crimes, make innocently ironic comments about how such and such an advance - the auto, ballistics, alternating current - might or might not be good for future generations. It's a bit of shtick that wears thin.

The weakness, for me, once more lies in the casting of Murdoch. Yannick Bisson is an extremely handsome actor who got his start doing television commercials and then moved into acting. He's 40 but looks younger, with eyes that probably make his lady fans swoon. His eyebrows sometimes have a life of their own. He's not a big man and he has a somewhat light voice. He can play serious but there's not a great deal of gravitas about him. Don't get me wrong; he's not a bad actor. But Murdoch requires a fine actor who can combine thoughtfulness, curiosity, some quiet humor and authority. He's also a man who can handle himself well in a brawl. Bisson, whose career has mainly been in television, reminds me of all those interchangeable and handsome Hollywood television actors who luck out in popular series. He's better than they are, but he doesn't carry much actorly weight.

If you like historical mysteries, I recommend trying out this series. It's nowhere near as gripping and detailed as, say, Holmes and Poirot. It doesn't have the character development and cleverness of Marple. The programs are a pleasant way to spend an hour at home. By all means, however, get the books and really delve into the crimes and squalor of William Murdoch's world of murder and injustice.

The Master of Ballantrae

Jamie Durie, the Master of Ballantrae, is not a man to let close to your wife, your daughter or your gold
The Master of Ballantrae just might have worked as a sprawling period swashbuckler if...the Master of Ballantrae, the eldest son of the laird of Clan Durie who fights for Bonnie Prince Charlie and loses, hadn't been such a self-centered clod who let his love of gold, wenches and adventure get in the way of honor, wisdom and trust, and if...Errol Flynn had been ten years younger. At 44, he looks 54, and often a puffy and tired 54 at that. If he were younger, he might have convinced us that the selfish and impetuous Jamie Durie would sometime soon in the movie find something honorable to do that would make us root for the romantic and dashing fellow. Looking in his mid-fifties, however, Flynn resembles an aging, petulant rake, and we know it's unlikely that there is any chance of a charming good guy emerging from the husk.

Robert Lewis Stevenson doesn't help. His Master is unredeemably and emotionally selfish, even though a dab hand with a sword, at piracy, with the ladies and with holding a grudge. No man in his right mind would place anyone he loves in the self-centered path of Jamie Durie. Flynn doesn't have much of a chance. It's clear Flynn's rapscallion, romantic, swashbuckling days have long gone by.

The story of the Master of Ballantrae bears some resemblance to Stevenson's novel. A toss of a coin determines that Jamie, the Master, will fight for the Stuart restoration when Charlie Stuart arrives from France to try to wrest the throne away from the Hanoverian King George II. As the elder brother, Jamie will inherit the Durie title and estates. The year is 1745. Jamie's younger brother, Henry (Anthony Steele), will support George. This way, whichever side wins, Clan Durie will have backed the winner. Henry is everything Jamie is not. He's conscientious, honorable and dull. And when Charlie loses, Jamie has to hightail it out of Scotland. Penniless, more or less, he encounters another rogue, Colonel Francis Burke (Roger Livesey, in a rollicking performance, and made up to look more of a drunk than Flynn), and off they go on the adventures of wenching and piracy, fighting and guffawing that make up most of the movie. Jamie never forgets, however, that he has a score to settle with Henry, for by now, thanks to jealousy and treachery, Henry has become the Master of Ballantrae and the heir to Clan Durie. If Jamie can't have the title, then when he sneaks back to Scotland he wants the woman who goes with the title, plus a good deal of money. He's more than willing to kill Henry to get all this.

Much of the movie was photographed in Scotland and looks great. Jack Cardiff gets the credit. The screenplay is often a bawdy, rag tag braggadocio of ripe dialogue credited to Herb Meadow with additional dialogue by Harold Medford. There is a rousing sea attack, some full-bodiced wenches in Tortuga, a fine, mannered dandy of a French pirate captain and a rouser of a Flynn sword fight. Unfortunately, it's obvious to one who looks closely that Flynn's fencing double is getting more screen time that Flynn during the fight. Even so, the story is something of a downer, the tale of a man who could never have enough, who kept close his resentments, who never forgot and who never learned. Well, maybe he learned a little at the end...if he listened to his great, true and only friend, Burke: "Not much time to remember all the girls you've known, all the laughter you've heard, all the gold you've spent, and all the plans you had to spend more. The places we've not seen, Jamie! The things that lie about the world! The fun of it!" Perhaps, but the happy end is about as abrupt and startling as suddenly opening a boiled haggis.

Roger Livesey, a fine British actor, would have overshadowed Flynn, in my opinion, if he hadn't carefully modulated bits and pieces of his performance. Burke is a dangerous rogue, but, unlike Jamie Durie, he's likable. To see Livesey at his very best, watch him in those three classic movies he starred in for Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, I Know Where I'm Going and A Matter of Life and Death.

If we want to remember Errol Flynn in his sad decline, let it be in that unremembered Western shot cheaply in 1950 and not promoted by the studio, Rocky Mountain. Flynn's prematurely aged face brings authenticity to a Confederate officer who, with his small group of men, decides to act with honor and to accept the consequences. Flynn could act when it suited him.

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