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The Changeling

Great Old Actors, Lousy Old Story
For about twenty years, from the phenomenal success of "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane" to the phenomenal flop of "Ghost Story," there was a trend in Hollywood to have A-list actors class up the B-grade genre of horror. By 1980, the great George C. Scott's career was at a low enough ebb that he got sucked into a routine chiller called "The Changeling," bringing with him his lovely wife Trish Van Devere and Oscar-winning Hollywood legend Melvyn Douglas. As a result, a TV-scale idea gets major-studio scale production, kind of like a One Direction song being played by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Speaking of classical music, Scott plays the only famous American composer of the latter 20th century, who must have married, to put it charitably, late in life, since he's mourning the wife and preteen daughter who die in a freak accident before the opening credits. The opening sequence should be scarifying but actually reminds the viewer of a little-noted horror movie trope: the happier the character appears, the more likely they are to buy it. Having survived this cliché, the Scott character heads straight for another one by moving into a -- natch! -- spooky old mansion, which he rents via small-town Realtor Van Devere and has some convoluted connection to a creaky old Senator played by Douglas. Don't get me wrong, "The Changeling" is a non-stop thrill ride if you've never seen a ghost story before. Otherwise, you can predict the long-buried secrets in long-shuttered rooms as if there were signs on the door (and there may as well be). It's not badly made -- the director has mastered the fundamentals of horror, such like chases down long dark halls, and Scott's grief is entirely believable, since, well, he's George C. Scott, who can communicate a thousand tortured feelings just by standing alone on screen (had he done more of that, he might have had a better career -- "difficult" is the kindest adjective attached to him). So if you don't set your expectations too high, "The Changeling" is just moderately entertaining enough to satisfy.

The Last Time I Saw Paris

Two Reasons Why the Studio System Failed
Reason # 1 - Lousy casting. "The Last Time I Saw Paris" is an expansion of F Scott Fitzgerald's elegiac short story "Babylon Revisited," a lightly fictionalized depiction of the aftermath of Fitzgerald's marriage to Zelda. If MGM stretching a melancholy, intimate portrait of a flawed man into a feature-length romantic extravaganza was a bad idea, casting Van Johnson as the Fitzgerald character was a worse one. Charles Wills, the Fitzgerald stand-in, is a journalist who marries a beautiful but impulsive debutante in Paris right after World War II, lapses into drunken self-loathing after writing a few failed novels, and wastes his wife's inheritance on the way to becoming a puffy, alcoholic playboy. Johnson is certainly believable as a spineless gigolo, but he's too light in his loafers to play an angry husband and too light in the head to play a brilliant, tortured artist. Plus, he was in his late thirties by the time all this celluloid was wasted, so his celebrated boyish good looks were turning flabby. Thus, there's no reason Charles would attract two hot prospects like Liz Taylor and Donna Reed, the expatriate sisters who fight for the pudgy pretty boy's love in post- WWII Paris. Liz wins, of course, and while she's not bad as Wills' erratic wife Helen, she didn't have the acting chops to connect her character's wild, fountain-swimming side and hurt, vulnerable, wronged- wife side. At least she's having a lot more fun than poor Donna Reed, another beautiful actress hagged up to make Liz Taylor even prettier (I don't think Shelley Winters ever forgave George Stevens for frowzing her up in "A Place in the Sun"). The normally effervescent Miss Reed is asked to play Helen's repressed, embittered sister, and just in case she didn't get the hint that her character was emotionally distant, the studio decided to style and costume her like a constipated schoolmarm. Why MGM would waste an Oscar-winning knockout like Reed on such a drab, thankless role indicates some discombobulated priorities. Veteran actor Walter Pidgeon, as Liz and Donna's penniless bon vivant father, manages to project the necessary seedy charm, but since that's all he has to do, his near-constant presence makes him a well-manicured bore. Compounding the absurdity is Zsa Zsa Gabor, who by 1954 already looked like she'd just emerged from her seventh face-lift, wandering on screen as a wealthy socialite who has a tryst with Charles (why not just cast a drag queen - - it's Van Johnson, after all!). Van and Liz also manage to conceive a daughter, the most saccharine movie child this side of a Disney flick. The whole thing is a mess.

Reason # 2 - Profligacy. Thousands of extras wander across the MGM soundstages intended to replicate post-WWII Paris. What could have been a sad, intimate portrait of two flawed people in love becomes an overlong Technicolor extravaganza of crowd scenes, party scenes, racetrack scenes, and one Monte Carlo Grand Prix auto race just to impede character development. At one point, the MGM costume department puts Johnson in a harlequin costume. The point?

Dark Passage

Not Quite Noir By Numbers
"Dark Passage" is a 1947 Warner Brothers film starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. That sentence telegraphs a few things about the film: it's a film noir with murders, betrayals and a femme fatale. A little formula isn't fatal for a film noir, since the genre is dependent on how human the archetypes can become -- is the existential hero believable? Is the femme fatale just tragic and mysterious enough to be alluring? Is the hero's faithful but ill-fated friend more than a plot device? As noir goes, "Dark Passage" is a bit too generic, but as filmmaking goes, it's a clever experiment that works more often than it fails. As a bonus, Agnes Moorehead turns in one of the most unexpected performances in cinematic history, and that alone makes "Dark Passage" worth viewing.

As a man falsely convicted of killing his wife, Bogart plays a standard noir hero with a troubled past and no future. To compensate for his commonness, director Delver Daves shoots most of the first part of the film from Bogart's perspective, which, as a choice, turns out to be more of a gimmick than a thematic choice but the early scene of being in an oil drum rolling down hill is pretty cool anyway. The movie is, naturally, concerned with finding out who murdered Bogart's wife, and the plot is a little muddled and weighted down with too many expository scenes. (Howard Hawks had just directed Bogie & Bacall in "The Big Sleep" and demonstrated that the more complicated the plot, the less important the exposition. I guess Daves didn't pay attention.) Bacall shows up as Bogart's helpmate, there are creepy supporting characters speaking strange monologues (another noir trademark), and enough weak but interesting men to keep the plot moving forward. But aside from the camera work, the most remarkable thing about "Dark Passage" is the casting of Agnes Moorehead as the de riguer evil woman. Sure, we can all know that Ag can play a domineering rhymes-with-witch, but who thought she could play a sexually voracious one? Her character of Madge is never fully explained, but seems to be an annoying rich woman whom everyone must tolerate because of her social position. To be bearable, Madge must be attractive in some way, and since the stately Ms. Moorehead exudes all the smoldering sensuality of a Mother Superior, she has to act sexy, which she's just talented enough to do. You've seen in "Citizen Kane," "The Twilight Zone" and "Bewitched," but you've never seen her like this. Check her out.

Cry Panic

What happens when someone hands a great idea for an existential film noir -- a lone traveler on a deserted highway runs over and kills a stranger, tries to tell the police, and isn't believed because the body disappears -- to a purveyor of processed cinematic cheese food like Aaron Spelling? The result is the inexplicably titled "Cry Panic," a cheapo ABC movie of the week from 1974 starring John Forsythe as the wanderer lured into a trap, Anne Francis as the de riguer bored sexy housewife, and Earl Holliman as the morally ambiguous sheriff of the small town where Forstythe collides with destiny.

The film should be tightly written, but it is not -- Forsythe's character can pursue his aim of proving that he's a killer thanks to a series of unlocked windows, open doors, and lucky discoveries, plus, we never know whether Holliman is acting alone to gaslight Forsythe, or is being manipulated by the other has-been actors who run the town. Such slack storytelling would be forgivable if the movie were atmospheric, but it is not -- it looks like a cop show and makes very little use of the emptiness and darkness that creeps into view now and then, and the director tosses in twangy, generic country music where silence might be more effective. Such bland filmmaking would be forgivable if the movie were perfectly cast, but it is not. There are actors who can portray the kind of dogged existential hero who will save his sanity by proving he's a killer, but John Forsythe ain't one of them. The scriptwriters make it easy for him to play a rootless nobody by giving him no past and no future aside from a potential job interview in San Francisco, but Forsythe, ever suave and even-tempered, still looks like a disgruntled suburban Dad whose Corvette ran out of gas on the way to his country club, more the kind of man who'll make trouble go away with a firm handshake that conceals a Benjamin than a relentless pursuer of truth at any cost. There's also the fact that his character seems way too stupid to figure out a junior-level crossword puzzle, let alone a convoluted mystery. He keeps trusting the wrong people, and when he discovers a dead body while eavesdropping on his pursuers he screams and runs out of his hiding place like a hysterical preteen girl. Anne Francis wanders on and offscreen looking like she doesn't quite know what she's doing there, which kind of works for her character. That so flawed a movie should still make such an impression is a testament to the great idea on which it's based, you just wish it could have been a little better.

She Waits

She Waits . . . for this to turn into "Rebecca," but in vain
A wealthy man, whose first wife died under mysterious circumstances, brings his perky but insecure new bride to his family home, which is dominated by a crazy old woman. Yep, it's deja vu all over again! But to avoid being sued by Alfred Hitchcock or Daphne du Maurier, the filmmakers give the second wife a name, make the old housekeeper sensible while assigning the husband's mother the eccentric-crone role, and hint at real supernatural involvement in all the strange goings-on. But all the cosmetic changes can't mask the basic structure of "Rebecca," although this is an above-average ripoff thanks to the presence of an Oscar-winning actress, Patty Duke, in the Mrs. De Winter role, and an Oscar-winning director, Delbert Mann ("Marty," "The Dark at the Top of the Stairs"), who wrings as much atmosphere as he can out of an over-orchestrated soundtrack, a wind machine and an oft-recycled set (I believe this particular house was reused in "The Devil's Daughter" and might have served as "The House That Would Night Die," appropriately enough). Throw in slumming Hollywood vets Beulah Bondi and Dorothy McGuire as the requisite old women, ever-earnest Lew Ayres as the requisite crusty old doctor, and aging pretty boy from U.N.C.L.E. David McCallum as the requisite moody, mysterious husband and you've got an adequate low-rent chiller, although most of the people involved deserved better.

As our film opens, kooky old McGuire is wandering her dark, empty house, calling out for a ghost named "Elaine" until older but stabler Bondi ushers her back to bed. Not long after, the newlywed McCallum and Duke show up unannounced. Omigosh, you wonder, is Patty going to start acting funny? Well, duh. But since Patty Duke could act, it's actually kind of compelling to watch, and the transitions imposed upon her character give her the chance to show off some range and depth. But while we buy Patty's transformation, we never buy McCallum's love for her since he lets his floppy hairstyle do most of the acting for him. The old folks are along for the ride and royalties and it's nice to see them getting some work. You know where it's going, but you don't mind the ride.

BUtterfield 8

PUtrid 109 Minutes
According to legend, Elizabeth Taylor won a sympathy Academy Award for "BUtterfield 8" in 1961 because she'd just survived a near-fatal case of pneumonia. Not quite. Liz's Oscar was the Hollywood equivalent of a Purple Heart for defeating the old-guard Studio system while enduring the worst script ever written. A dying MGM attempted one last show of force by punishing Taylor, the last star it created, for her wanton ways with a tawdry film designed to exploit the home-wrecker reputation she'd gained by breaking up Eddie Fisher's marriage to Debbie Reynolds. Bad move. On screen and off, Liz proved herself superior to this gold-plated pigsty, picking up an award for a movie she refused to even see as she waltzed off to bigger paydays, better scripts, and more husbands.

Most comedies should be this funny. "BUtterfield 8" has the exact same plot as "Pretty Woman" - New York tramp meets and falls for wealthy executive -- but we're supposed to take it seriously. Liz plays Manhattan model Gloria Wandrous (subtle, eh?), who's technically not a prostitute but rather a single woman who has multiple affairs, a merely academic difference according to 1960 Hollywood. After sleeping through the opening credits, which are superimposed over her in bed, Liz wakes up alone in a penthouse following a one-night stand with rich stiff Laurence Harvey, wanders around wrapped in a sheet, has a drink, nabs a mink, and cabs it to the apartment of Eddie Fisher, for whom Liz secured a role as Gloria's childhood best friend and the first of many doormats she will trample in this film. Even better, Eddie is engaged to a perky blonde with a Debbie Reynolds hairdo. If you aren't giggling yet, just wait until Harvey reappears. As the married lawyer who falls for mantrap Liz, he spends the movie looking slightly less dazed than he would two years later throughout "The Manchurian Candidate" and has to deliver all the dumbest lines - when he escorts Liz onto his yacht, she asks "where are you sailing, Captain?" to which he responds "Out of frustration and into ecstasy!" There's no reason, except script contrivance, that a babe of Liz's caliber should ever fall for a rude, ugly, self-loathing dullard like Laurence (a meta-mockery of Fisher?). However, he has plenty of reason to fall for her -- despite the movie depicting her as damaged goods, Liz is actually fun, witty, sexy and roughly a 1000% improvement on Laurence's on screen wife, the blonde, bland and blank-faced Dina Merrill, who can't decide if she's playing a willfully or genuinely naive woman and splits the difference by acting really, really stupid. If only "BUtterfield 8" were made in an era of sex comedies, say the 30's or 70's, Liz could have been a heroine, Harvey's zombified affect could have been exploited for comic value, and the filmmakers would have recognized the humor in the following exchange between Harvey and Merrill: "I can't go on disappointing you!" "Couldn't you try?" But "Butterfield 8" was made during the Golden Age of big-budget soapscum like "Peyton Place" and "Written on the Wind" so viewers have to endure the era's hypocritical moralizing . . . these bad people will pay for their sins, but not until a reel or two after we've been titillated by same.

The House That Would Not Die

Never Fear, Babs is Here!
As any fan of classic film and cheeseball TV knows, Barbara Stanwyck was one durable dame. The woman who conquered the corporate world in 1933's "Baby Face" and blasted gun-toting outlaws on "The Big Valley" is more than a match for the wind machines and bad actors who challenge her in this cheapo 1970 made-for, which is why it's ultimately not that scary or suspenseful. It's also hampered by a cobwebbed ghost story plot -- a maiden aunt and her dewy young niece move into an old house only to learn (oh no!) that it's haunted. Still, it's always fun to hang out with Babs, so "The House that Wouldn't Die" isn't a complete waste of time. It's like decaffeinated coffee, a short, mild indulgence that won't keep you awake at night.

Miss Stanwyck plays Ruth, a career Washington bureaucrat who takes a sabbatical (Civil Service rules must have been a lot more relaxed during the Nixon administration) and moves to a late distant relative's house near where her fluttery niece Sarah, played by Kitty Wynn, plans to attend college. If Stanwyck is above this sort of downmarket Gothic, Wynn is perfect for it since she seems born to play wide-eyed, helpless young ingénues -- the only time her voice rises above a quivering whisper is when she screams, which she does enough to wake the dead. The dead, however, don't seem to appreciate the intrusion so they start possessing various characters and making them act homicidal. Having apparently exhausted the budget on Babs' salary and nifty wardrobe (the cranberry pantsuit she dons toward the end of the flick is particularly chic), the producers could only afford a single special effect -- a megawatt wind machine which gets switched onto high every time one of the undead makes an appearance. This motif is a bit too indicative, but it's also the only way you'll know that Richard Egan, who plays Babs' romantic interest, has transformed from gentlemanly anthropology professor next door to malevolent spirit. His facial expression doesn't change otherwise. Rounding out this intrepid quartet is someone named Michael Anderson Jr. as Professor Egan's swishy grad student and Kitty's chaste love interest. The movie could be unwatchably dull but isn't, thanks to Babs' stalwart presence. However, it could be atmospherically creepy but isn't, thanks to Egan's granite stiffness and a script that sounds like it was penned by the "Scooby Doo" staff during a prime time writers' strike ("try and open up this old writing desk . . . these things are usually crammed with old letters and papers" declares Babs, perhaps unaware that she's channeling Velma Dinkley). Still, Miss Barbara Stanwyck offers a primer on how to maintain your dignity during the twilight of your career. Someone should have forced Bette Davis to watch this movie.

A Case of Rape

If It Happened To Liz Montgomery, it can happen to anyone.
That's the subtle message of this remarkably restrained made-for-TV docudrama, which features the "Bewitched" star as a sort of real-world Samantha Stephens - Ellen Harrod, a stylish California housewife with an adorable blonde daughter and an affable mope for a husband (in this film played by Ronny Cox as opposed to Dicks Sargent or York), but no magic powers. Ellen is, however, just as smart and self-possessed as Samantha, and her lack of histrionics makes all the abuse she endures in this movie -- two sexual assaults, a callous medical establishment and an actively hostile legal system -- even more disturbing. Liz Montgomery almost always played superior to type. In "Bewitched," both she and the audience were in on the central joke of the premise, which was that she was light-years above Darren's league and could have turned him into a ferret if she wanted (not that it would have made much difference) . In "A Case of Rape," she plays a victim who steadfastly refuses to act like a victim, but is so disgusted by everyone's willful blindness to her ordeal that she finally gets up and screams about it.

In her early scenes of playfully sparring with Cox and dabbling with painting, Liz establishes Ellen as sexy, sharp-witted, and creative, the kind of woman whom it was all too easy to stereotype as a bored housewife secretly bored by her life and seek excitement in infidelity. Which is exactly how doctors and cops treat Ellen after her assailant tricks his way into her home one night, sexually assaults her while her daughter is sleeping, and attacks her again in the parking lot of her apartment complex a couple of days later. The rest of the movie is calculated outrage, but since public attitudes toward rape weren't all that progressive in 1974, such plot devices as the cynical prosecutor who treats Ellen's case like a mundane chore and Cox's pitifully inadequate attempts to be supportive ("he did this to both of us!") were probably necessary, and the filmmakers are to be commended for not sensationalizing the subject matter with cat-and-mouse chase scenes or hysterical breakdowns. Still, it's a rough couple of hours. Liz is so isolated in this movie that she doesn't even get sympathy from her best friend, a frumpy neighbor who, in one sickening scene, hints that she wants Liz to share every titillating detail of the assault. Less secure human beings would explode or sob at such ill treatment. Liz, being Liz, drops a cool bon mot, thanks her for the coffee, and leaves. She's a great advocate for the dignity of sexual assault survivors, and that alone makes "A Case of Rape" worth watching.

The Devil's Daughter

Cast Out Of Heaven Into Hell
In 1973, ABC assembled multiple-Oscar winner Shelley Winters, "Citizen Kane" and "The Third Man" veteran Joseph Cotten, Martha Scott from the film version and original stage production of "Our Town," talented young character actress Diane Ladd, and, for good measure, Abe Vigoda fresh from getting taken for a ride toward the end of "The Godfather." Wow, were they doing Shakespeare? Chekhov? A mini-series based on a classic American novel? Nope, they were donning robes and playing a coven of California witches scaring the bejesus out of poor Belinda Montgomery in "The Devil's Daughter," a cheap "Rosemary's Baby" knock-off. I don't know if all these distinguished actors needed the money, wanted to have some silly fun, or assumed that Robert Foxworth was destined for greater things than he actually achieved and was in need of some acting lessons, but the result is silly Satanic camp that will have you screaming with more laughter than fear.

Before the credits roll, we watch Miss Ladd attempt to ward off some creepy home intruders with a gun that apparently misfires and kills her. We first see stiff, somber, shy young Belinda at the funeral for her mother, Ladd, who must have married extremely young and extremely well since her only child is already in her 20s after having spent her life in boarding and convent schools. This sheltered upbringing explains her awkwardness, extreme politeness, and lack of fear when Shelley Winters, chauffeured by a mute Jonathan Frid, shows up after the funeral, claims she was Ladd's best friend, and invites her home for lunch. Veteran film watchers knew that by 1973 Shelley was a bad omen, but Belinda must never have seen "What's The Matter With Helen" since she graciously accepts Shelley's invitation to stay in her mansion. Things at the manor get weird enough to change Belinda's pinched expression from mildly depressed to mildly disturbed, so she moves out into an apartment with a perky Marlo Thomas clone. Shelley is furious at Belinda, but they patch things up just in time for the latter to attend a party the former throws in her honor so she can meet her mother's old friends, one of whom is anthropologist Abe Vigoda, speaking in a bad Bela Lugosi accent and enticing young Belinda into performing a "Mexican Indian" dance with him. Yes, you read that right, this movie features an Abe Vigoda dance number, and if that isn't funny enough, all the Hollywood vets in attendance start chanting "HAIL THE DEVIL'S DAUGHTER" at a whirling, dazed Belinda. And this is before we even meet Joseph Cotten as a crusty old judge who, for some reason, still works at a law firm, or Scott's son Foxworth, the stiff but ambitious architect with whom Belinda finds the true love that will shield her from the clutches of the coven . . . or will it? The film is an unintentional (?) advertisement for Satanism since the devil-worshipers appear to be having a lot more fun than goody-two-shoes sourpuss Montgomery. Cotten happily hams it up in a way that his former patron Orson Welles would appreciate, Vigoda looks like he's always on the verge of hysterics (perhaps he was), and Shelley, wearing a succession of absurd hats as she chain-smokes long brown cigarettes, leaves no scenery unchewed as Belinda's malevolent benefactress Lilith (yep, Lilith) Malone. You'd think that Belinda would prefer life in Shelley's sprawling Victorian home, with Frid to wait on her and two loony, strudel-baking old ladies next door, to renting an ugly apartment with a Breck girl in the next bedroom and dullard Foxworth upstairs, but the script needs her to be unhappy, so off she goes. But . . . for how long?

Seven Days in May

Several Actors In Uniform
What do you get when you combine a genius director of suspense films (John Frankenheimer), a quartet of Hollywood legends (Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Frederic March and Ava Gardner), and a platoon of great character actors (Edmond O'Brien, Martin Balsam and Andrew Duggan, just for starters)? Well, a surprisingly tepid political thriller, if you let TV-grade pseudo-intellectual Rod Serling write the script. All the elements are present for a worthy successor to Frankenheim's masterpiece "The Manchurian Candidate" -- credible intrigue, a charismatic villain, and shadowy, unsettling black-and-white cinematography. For about two-thirds of the movie, the filmic aspects of "Seven Days in May" are just gripping enough to overcome a script riddled with Serling's second-worst flaw as a writer -- the tendency to have all characters speak with the cadence and vocabulary of middlebrow magazine editorials ("you make me think that fruit salad on your chest is for neutrality, evasiveness, and fence-straddling"). But all the plot twists and jarring close-ups on Earth can't silence Serling's voice, which is a tragedy since the grandiloquent sermons he sticks in his characters' mouths -- his single greatest vice, here and in countless "Twilight Zone" scripts -- almost derail the movie towards the end. "Seven Days in May" turns the peculiar trick of being both suspenseful and boring, thanks to Rod the Modernist.

The plot, which hinges on a series of coincidences and fortunate accidents which a more clever writer could have avoided, concerns Kirk Douglas, a Marine colonel working as an administrator for the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, coming to suspect that his superior, jut-jawed Air Force commander Burt Lancaster, is conspiring with his fellow military leaders to take over of the United States. Kirk reports his suspicions to President March, who has incurred Burt's wrath by signing a nuclear disarmament treaty with the USSR, and the rest of the film is devoted to foiling the attempted coup d'état. Ava Gardner, not aging particularly well by 1964, shows up as Lancaster's ex-mistress who may harbor some embarrassing secrets about the General, not to mention a potential love interest for Kirk. Balsam, O'Brien et al portray all the President's men, loyal operatives and sympathetic senators who scheme to keep the world safe for democracy. All of the actors are fine, making Serling's flights of expository eloquence ("James Mattoon Scott hasn't the slightest interest in his own glorification, but he does have an abiding interest in the survival of his country!") listenable and almost plausible. Lancaster especially deserves a fifth star as the messianic four-star general, creating a credible and almost sympathetic character beneath all the bluster and bombast. But all of Burt's charisma and all of Kirk's agonizing can't knock Rod off his soapbox, nor can they induce him to make his larger-than-life archetypes as ruthless as Frankenheimer, at least, knew they should be, based on "The Manchurian Candidate." Good movie, blown opportunity.

Mommie Dearest

Worst Performance In Film History (But Not The One You've Heard About)
If you've never seen this 1981 adaptation of Christina Crawford's hatchet job on her late adoptive mother, Hollywood legend Joan, chances are you've heard about Faye Dunaway's unhinged lead performance. And yes, Faye is every frightening thing you've heard about and more, from the crossed eyes to the screaming fits to the unconvincing drunken wobbling. But give "the dread Dunaway" (Jack Nicholson's affectionate term for her) some credit. She's playing Joan Crawford, a melodramatic actress and fiercely assertive personality. Beyond that, she's asked to play Joan Crawford as the violent, alcoholic monster that her vengeful daughter wants us to believe she was, which demands an extra layer of mania. And surely, the producers knew that Faye was never the subtlest actress -- she earned that Oscar for "Network" with a convincing portrayal of an obvious but charming sociopath. Finally, she's dealing with an atrocious script. Faye didn't write lines like "I can handle the socks!" and "Tina, bring me the ax!" or dream up the ludicrous wire hanger scene on her own. The movie makers lavished a multi-million dollar budget on sets, costumes, make-up, a two-bit script and a director (Frank Perry)who obviously didn't know how to rein in his stars' worst impulses. I'm not talking about Faye here, I mean Diana Scarwid, the expressionless stiff who portrayed Christina as an adult.

Maybe Perry can be forgiven for not throwing a net over Dunaway -- based on every report, the lady is a giant pain (Bette Davis, for one, hated Faye even more than she hated Joan, and that's saying a lot). But why on Earth did he fail so miserably to coax anything like a recognizable human emotion out of Scarwid? After an hour or so of watching Faye chop the hair off, beat and insult poor little Mara Hobel (few movies are simultaneously so ridiculous and so disturbing), Scarwid shows up as teenage Christina, dressed like the Statue of Liberty and reciting lines from Jean Anouihl's "Antigone" (cute, guys) and somehow manages to get less believable from that point onward. Maybe Scarwid & Perry decided that portraying Christina as a listless, mealy-mouthed little simp would invite audience sympathy. Actually, we wonder if Christina raided the medicine cabinet for the anti-psychotic meds that might have calmed her mother down. The explosive mother-daughter confrontation scene, late in the film after Joan pulls Christina out of boarding school for canoodling with an apparently near-sighted boy, should be climactic -- the victim is finally standing up for herself. Instead, we cheer Faye on for pushing Scarwid over that end table, since we might be tempted to do the same if we were trying to get a realistic reaction out of such a semi-animated mannequin. "Mommie Dearest" destroyed careers, and almost everyone deserved their fate.

The Bad and the Beautiful

Lana Is So Bad It's Beautiful
"The Bad and the Beautiful" is not just the title of this picture, it's a description of the major studios' business plan in the 1950s. To compete with that horrid little box that was infesting the living rooms and emptying the movie theaters of America, the big screen had to offer what television couldn't: sex (ooh, bad!) and high production values (ooh, beautiful!). "B&B" offers as much adultery and sumptuous sets as the censors and budgets will allow while it traces the rise and fall of an amoral film producer (Kirk Douglas) as he destroys a director (Barry Sullivan), actress (Lana Turner) and writer (Dick Powell) in pursuit of cinematic immortality. Not sure if Charles Schnee (writer) and Vincent Minelli (director) meant for this movie to be quite that metafictional, but they come awfully close. Particularly postmodern is the characters' penchant for criticizing Lana Turner's performance: "wooden," "terrible," "even when you're awful, you're all the audience sees." (Indeed, that rack of hers literally and figuratively obscured many a movie set.) As Hollywood self-laceration goes, "The Bad and the Beautiful" presages "The Player" by forty years, and manages to be a far better film by upping the melodrama and burying the self-referential cleverness.

Douglas' character,Jonathan Shields, is the son of some dead, disgraced studio exec who sets out to avenge his father's humiliation. The film sets a tone of gleeful cynicism by having young Shields pay complete strangers $11.00 to mourn at his father's funeral. One of the grievers-for-hire, Barry Sullivan, makes snotty comments about the dear departed but apologizes to Shields, also letting him know he's an aspiring director. Shields lures him into a filmmaking partnership, then destroys him. In the course of setting up Sullivan, he encounters Lana Turner as second-generation starlet Gloria Lorrison. She insults him, so later on he builds a big picture around her, seduces her, and destroys her. Just for fun, Shields also ruins the life of a Southern writer (Dick Powell) who rebuffs his first offer to collaborate on a movie. To its eternal credit, the movie never asks us to hate Shields -- he's a pure sociopath who barely masks his manipulations and, when discovered, doesn't even pretend he's sorry, he just tells his victims they had it coming. (And, to a certain extent, yes, they did.) "B&B" is also helped by Vincent Minelli's ridiculously competent filmmaking -- lovely tracking shots, beautifully evocative lighting, heart-rending orchestral swells, all the elements of great, glossy soap opera. He couldn't do much with Lana, but then again, she's not much more than a special effect and he uses her that way. Her "breakdown" scene while driving away from Kirk's house is so hysterically horrible that Minelli doesn't cut away to scenes of her out-of-control car careening around corners, since anything even remotely realistic would detract from the giddy unreality of her performance. Faring much better is Gloria Grahame as the writer's nympho wife, perhaps because all she's asked to do is act sexy and maintain a Southern accent. She manages both, and was rewarded with an Oscar.

Panic in the Streets

On the New Orleans Waterfront
Elia Kazan's "Panic in the Streets" isn't a masterpiece, but it's an absorbing little thriller which also serves as a nice preview of Kazan's more significant film achievements in the 1950s. In fact, the whole film comes off as a bit of an excuse to scout New Orleans locations for exterior shots to be used in "A Streetcar Named Desire," not to mention a warm-up to the extended justification of informing that is "On the Waterfront" (which is, nonetheless, a masterpiece). You can see the shadowy visual style that Kazan would perfect in "Streetcar and "Waterfront" starting to ripen, and there's even Jack Palance, billed here as "Walter Jack Palance," fresh off replacing Brando in "Streetcar" on Broadway, to cement the film's status as an extended dress rehearsal for the rest of the decade. And in some insanely ironic casting, there's a pre-blacklist Zero Mostel onhand acting for one of HUAC's most notorious informers. But even without its historical significance, "Panic in the Streets" offers plenty of entertainment value.

In the film's first few minutes, New Orleans underworld chieftan Palance plugs a sweaty immigrant who tries to duck out of a poker game. The rest of the film involves the New Orleans police and health departments working to track down Palance and anyone else who might have had contact with the foreign-born stiff, who was perspiring thanks to a case of pneumonic plague, in order to prevent an epidemic, not to mention a Panic in the Streets. It could be a dry police procedural, and for the most part is, but there are some nifty noir elements, like the waterfront demimonde which Palance and his henchman Mostel inhabit, and some interesting docudrama-style scenes as the cops and docs explore some of New Orleans' multiple ethnic subcultures as they hunt for sources of infection. Otherwise, there's some modest diversion to be found as Richard Widmark, as the young doctor on the public payroll determined to stop the sickness, and Paul Douglas, as the grizzled old cop (is there any other kind?) assigned to assist Widmark in his quest, develop a grudging respect for each other. Like a good member of the Greatest Generation, Widmark has an understanding wife, played by future "Dallas" doyenne Barbara Bel Geddes, and a cute kid, played by future "Lassie" lad Tommy Rettig. Widmark's domestic bliss is pretty trite, but it's written with a hint of depth and wit so it doesn't ruin the movie so much as reinforce its atmosphere as a slightly-better-than-average TV cop show.

The Babysitter's Seduction

"Run, Felicity, Run!'
That's what you'll be screaming, albeit in jest, if you stick with this low-intensity mid-90s made-for thriller, which stars the future nighttime soap star as a dimmer-than-a-penlight high school senior seduced by the man whose children she babysits (you might have figured that out from the title). He's no run-of-the-mill sleazebag, though -- he's a sociopath who plugs his wife, stages it as a suicide and then can't quite decide whether he should frame the aspirational lower-middle-class teenager played by sweet Keri or the smug computer hacker (1996 edition), played by stiff John D'Aquino, who was banging his wife. Collins seems to think he's playing against type but his typical narrowed eyes and oily mannerisms render him about as disarming as a used-car salesman turned televangelist. Not that lovely Keri would ever notice, since she's more interested in picking out miniskirts and scoop-neck tops to show off those lovely, barely legal legs and boobs.

Although it's poorly written and acted, "The Babysitter's Seduction" does manage to rise above utter and complete predictability by offering a slight twist on the America's cinematic aupairaphobia. In most domestic thrillers, a hot young babysitter (why aren't men or unattractive women ever hired to tend children?) insinuates herself into a household and whittles away the confidence of the aging (but still beautiful) career woman whose husband and children she gradually lures away. In this movie, at least, Mom is gone within minutes and the babysitter is the one being menaced, although since it's a low-rent ripoff of "The Jagged Edge" you can't credit the filmmakers with great originality. "TBS" also offers a modicum of suspense in that until the end, you never know who's going to save poor little Keri -- her harried single Mom, who's working too hard to save her daughter from the slimy smoothie? Her poorly coiffed ex-boyfriend, whom she blows off so she can attend to Stevie's needs? The tough lady cop, played by Phylicia Rashad, who seems to think that affecting a Clair Huxtable-like knowingness throughout the entire movie will compensate for the inability to keep her mouth shut around the prime suspects in a murder investigation? Or will Keri wise up just in time to save herself? You won't actually know until the last five minutes of the movie, although if Keri Tight And Sheer doesn't keep you interested you may have given up long beforehand.


Just A Gigolo, Everywhere You Go . . .
In "Dodsworth," the title auto magnate embarks on a European tour with his wife, who takes up with a series of penniless but titled men. To modern ears, the plot sounds a tad soapy, but in 1936, social-climbing American divorcées were the destroyers of dynasties, not dowagers out of Danielle Steele, so this Sinclair Lewis novel gets a very tasteful, respectful film treatment with an A-list cast (Walter Huston, Ruth Chatterton, Mary Astor) and director (William Wyler, master of middlebrow, middle-class drama -- see "The Best Years of Our Lives"). The results are uneven, thanks to an awesome performance by Huston and an awful one by Chatterton, but generally entertaining, thanks to genuine suspense about the survival of the Dodsworth's marriage.

Craggy Hollywood legend Huston plays craggy American archetype Sam Dodsworth, a man of humble origins who claws his way to the top through brains and industriousness. After he sells his automobile company to a huge competitor(quite realistic for the time --young audience members will be shocked to learn that there were once more than three car companies in America), his American archetype wife, the vaguely ditzy and dissatisfied Fran (Chatterton), convinces him to enjoy his new leisure by sailing for Europe since she's never been happy in her home town of Zenith (had she read more Lewis novels, she'd realize no one is, not even George Babbitt). Innocents (or idiots) abroad is another shopworn American theme, and here, Europe doesn't get an especially sympathetic treatment since the whole continent is portrayed as swarming with well-dressed smoothies looking for any chance to sponge off of rich, gullible American women. Ruth throws herself at tux after tux, one of which encases a young David Niven (who bears a striking resemblance to a middle-aged David Niven and an old David Niven), until Walter finally has enough and succumbs to the charms of lovely Edith Cortright (Astor), a sad-eyed, charming American divorcée living in Naples. Astor is good, she's very good, as lovely Edith, and I wonder if more traditionalist audiences in the 1930s were rooting for the end of the Dodsworth marriage (as I was) or the reconciliation of Sam and Fran. Wyler and the screenwriters try to build some sympathy for dear Mrs. Dodsworth by subjecting her to a humiliating dressing-down by a slow-talking European countess (the wonderfully named Madame Maria Ouspenskaya) whose son Fran aspires to marry. But since the character of Fran is so shrill and annoying, thanks in part to the script and thanks in part to Ruth Chatterton's inability to convey any real feeling (the character makes about three transitions in every scene, none of which ol' Ruth bothers to register), you kind of wish that the good Madame will pull a pearl-handled revolver from the folds of her gown and put Ruth and the audience out of their collective misery.

Once you ignore Ruthie, though, "Dodsworth" is a pretty good time. Between the epic score and the epic scenery, it's a fantastically lush production, and there's some clever filmmaking going on between the economical dialogue (entire relationships are established in three lines) and smart cinematography (every time you see a character standing in a doorway, something major is about to happen). And Huston excels as the kind of homespun hero that Spencer Tracy or Jimmy Stewart were too young to play in 1936, and to his great credit, he doesn't shy from Sam D's darker side -- the scene in which he returns, cuckolded, to Zenith and starts yelling at everyone in his house is fantastically uncomfortable. Angelica inherited her talent from him and her looks, blessedly, from somewhere else.

The Perfect Nanny

More Formula Than A Case Of Similac
In the opening scene of "The Perfect Nanny," an unhappy-looking brunette woman grabs a knife from her kitchen, marches into the bedroom where two people are having sex, and . . . stabs herself in the stomach. It's an obvious twist. Unfortunately, it's the only twist in this dreadful made-for, which is aimed at illiterates. Literally. When the characters aren't thinking aloud, they're reading aloud from whatever book, e-mail or psychiatric case file just happens to be open in front of them. But that's fair, since the filmmakers assume their audience is as stupid as the characters in this movie, which, as the title helpfully telegraphs, is yet another thriller in the venerable "obsessive psycho insinuates herself into an innocent family's life" genre (along the lines "The Single White Female That Attracts The Cradle" or whatever). Since there is no suspense whatsoever in this thriller, its only possible entertainment value is the camp factor, which is, sadly, only moderate. The plot, or excuse for it, centers on Tracy Nelson as the unhappy brunette who, after being released from the psych ward, changes her name and becomes the receptionist for a child care service so she can emulate the heroine of her favorite romance novel, a nanny who marries her employer. Yes, you've already guessed how this sucker is going to end, so you might as well try to enjoy the ride. On the plus side, Katherine Helmond turns in yet another witty performance as yet another horrible old lady, this time the psychonanny's abusive mother. Fans of blood and gore will also appreciate the body count, as the malicious Mary Poppins leaves a trail of victims that would embarrass Ted Bundy. The weak link, as always, is the family that the au parasite stalks, which is so boring that only a psycho would want want to live with them. Widower Bruce Boxleitner is a brilliant neurosurgeon but apparently too stupid to check references, let alone notice that his college-aged daughter (Dana Barron) is actually in her mid-30s. (Sweet "young" Fawn is off to study English Literature at Cambridge in a few months -- it can't be easy to wait fifteen years for your Junior Year Abroad.) The kid who the caretaker is supposed to take care of, ten-year-old Ben, is an easily duped genius (like father, like son). 70s stalwart Susan Blakely, still looking pretty decent in a bathing suit, shows up as Bruce's colleague and potential love interest but doesn't get enough screen time to perk up the proceedings. So you've read that title, which tells you what's going to happen. Watch at your own risk.

The Blues Brothers

Genius Loves Company
This movie merits classic status because it showcases five giants of American popular music -- Cab Calloway, John Lee Hooker, Ray Charles, James Brown, and Aretha Franklin. But by 1980, America's musical taste had been so pasteurized by disco and country (Bee Gees vs. Kenny Rogers) that these blues and R&B legends might have been relegated to a PBS documentary if it weren't for the admirable efforts of Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi to present their brilliance to a wider audience. To do that, however, they had to stitch together a knockabout comedy with a threadbare plot and loads of car chases which stops every 15 minutes or so for an awesome musical number. If that makes "The Blues Brothers" sound like an extended, excessive, extremely expensive episode of late-70s "Saturday Night Live," well, surprise, surprise, that's exactly what it is. But between the sketchy schtick and the fantastic musical guests, "The Blues Brothers" is as loaded with entertainment value as a stuffed Chicago pizza is with calories, and both are equally satisfying.

The plot, so to speak, centers on "Joliet" Jake (John Belushi) & Elwood Blues' (Dan Aykroyd) attempts to raise $5,000 for back taxes on the orphanage where they were raised. (Warning: the orphanage is run by the Catholic church. If you stop to wonder why a religious institution has to pay property taxes, you're really not going to get into the spirit of this thing.) They reassemble their old band, which fell apart after Jake went to prison, and embark on a lunatic journey across the greater Chicago area, destroying malls, alienating law enforcement and enraging Nazis along the way. You're distracted from the improbable storyline by director John Landis' gift for piling overkill on top of overkill, which in this movie even includes firebombs, machine gun fire and other pyrotechnics, most of it launched by a mysteriously enraged Carrie Fisher, who sleepwalks through this cameo like she's prescription-drugged into near catatonia (which she probably was). The comedy is broad but funny, and the Blues Brothers' numbers featuring Aykroyd and Belushi are surprisingly gritty considering the routine was always more about attitude that authenticity. But what elevates "The Blues Brothers" above the level of a well-made dumb comedy is its guest stars.

Big kudos to scriptwriters Aykroyd & Landis for naming Jake & Elwood's backing ensemble the "Blues Brothers Rhythm & Blues Band," a subtle acknowledgment that the Jake & Elwood characters always parodied more R&B (or, in the case of their "Gimme Some Lovin'" cover, phony R&B) than actual blues. They pay an even greater homage to bona fide electric Chicago blues with a scene featuring John Lee Hooker, performing his classic "Boom Boom," that has absolutely no connection to the rest of the movie (but is, nonetheless, excellent). As for the rest of the musical guests, none of them are famous for blues -- Cab Calloway was a jazz singer, and Ray Charles invented the kind of gritty soul which James Brown and Aretha Franklin perfected. But if you're the kind of purist who lets these kind of distinctions ruin your fun, you should probably skip this movie and go hang out at Buddy Guy's Legends. The rest of us can enjoy Calloway as the Blues Brothers' mentor, Brown as a charismatic preacher, Charles as a blind, gun-toting music store owner and Franklin as a soul food restaurateur. As actors, Cab and Aretha do pretty well, Ray is commendable and the filmmakers were wise enough not to give JB any dialogue (his control-freak tendencies might have prompted him to rewrite the entire movie). But that's all just a bonus, since their musical numbers are the great highlights of "The Blues Brothers," beautifully sung and enlivened by choreography that manages to look both polished and spontaneous. Aretha's version of "Think" is especially moving, since she's trying to convince her no-good husband, Matt "Guitar" Murphy, to stay on the straight and narrow and not take off with the Blues Brothers on their ridiculous adventure. She looks good, moves well and sounds just fine, even if she doesn't quite reach the high notes she hits in the recorded version. (But I'm going to assume that was her choice -- watch the credits and listen to what Aretha does with her throwaway line in the "Jailhouse Rock" number. Damn.) ReRe was in a career slump at the time and "The Blues Brothers" primed her for a return to superstardom. Nice work, Aykroyd & Belush.

By the way . . . skip "Blues Brothers 2000." It's pretty lame.

Shutter Island

Marty . . . was this movie really necessary?
Because honestly, it looks like you grabbed Leo DiCaprio, a couple of wind machines, a rough draft of the screenplay for "Inception" and made "Shutter Island" over a long weekend. Granted, your genius is evident throughout the movie . . . "Shutter Island" is muddled, confusing and ultimately pointless, but it's littered with raw, brutal, beautiful images that are much more disturbing than the nonsense storyline. What a masterpiece you could have made if you'd taken a few months to meditate on those visions of Dachau and drowning children. They could have been the heart of this movie instead of red herrings that ultimately have nothing to do with Leo's quest for . . . well, we're never really sure, since he doesn't seem to know either. Okay, maybe I shouldn't blame you for the inconsistencies of the plot, I've never read Lehane's novel. But I will remind you that some novels shouldn't be filmed, and maybe "Shutter Island" is one of them. I don't mind ambiguity. However, my idea of "ambiguity" is not knowing why Leo came to the island. Your idea of "ambiguity" means getting Leo to the island and then inventing five different competing reasons for him to be there . . . is he trying to find the man who murdered his wife? Is he trying to expose atrocities committed by the US government? Is he trying (and failing) to prove that he can keep an accent for an entire movie? He has to fill in the blank along with the audience, and I'm sorry, that's not as interesting as trying to solve a riddle with a single answer.

The Best Man

Henry Fonda In The Valley Of Decision
"The Best Man" is the kind of verbally rich, visually spare docudrama that was released every few years in the late 1950s and early 1960s, most of them signaling their intellectual seriousness with black-and-white cinematography and Henry Fonda. (See "Twelve Angry Men" and "Fail Safe" for other entries in this genre.) And here is Henry again, barely disguised as Adlai Stevenson -- he's a brainy former Secretary of State running for President. As a classic Hollywood leading man, Henry had an honorable career playing various versions of himself. In "The Best Man" he is Flawed But Decent Henry, a charming but depressive liberal stuck in a bad marriage, and he's even more convincing than usual, since this version might be closer to the real man than many of the nobler characters he played. Henry's foil is a wild-eyed, perfectly coiffed Cliff Robertson as a ruthless Senator who is vying for the nomination at the nominating convention of the unnamed party to which they belong. The stars do just fine, but the best performance is given by Lee Tracy (whoever the hell he was) as a dying former president whose folksy, Truman-esque (as in Harry, not Capote) demeanor masks a devious insight into men's characters and psychology. The women in the movie are mainly decorative, as befits a movie called "The Best Man" -- they all wear ridiculous blonde bouffants and dutifully step aside when it's time to talk politics. At least Margaret Leighton, as Fonda's estranged wife, is allowed to some depth, although she's a bit of a stereotypical mid-century neurotic housewife, albeit one with a fairly soft edge.

Gore Vidal wrote "The Best Man," and as a film, it's okay . . . genuinely suspenseful, and there's a nice contrast of dialogue between Fonda's glib eloquence, Tracy's homespun sophistry and Robertson's clipped aggressiveness. However, the camera work is bland and the use of stock footage and music is awkward to the point of jarring. As an analysis of American politics in 1964, it's pretty decent . . . Vidal has spent his life around this stuff, so he efficiently but effectively portrays the horse-trading and hypocrisy endemic to the profession. But "The Best Man" is most moving as an elegy. The kind of divided convention depicted in "The Best Man" is impossible today thanks to the Primary system. Also, Vidal is eulogizing the kind of public intellectual that Stevenson epitomized -- the cancer-stricken old President is named "Hockstader" in an apparent homage to the great American political writer Richard Hofstadter, and Henry's closest adviser, played by Kevin McCarthy, sports the bow tie and blazer that symbolize Ivy League credentials. Robertson's simian Senator seems to be the bastard child of John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon, a handsome but unscrupulous Red-baiter with a beautiful but stupid wife (Vidal was no fan of Jackie Kennedy, to whom he was related). "The Best Man" captures the brief moment in American politics when it seemed possible that intellect would triumph over populism, a possibility that Vidal realized is unlikely since he's smarter than Aaron Sorkin.

The Adjustment Bureau

Lost In The Matrix Of Love
"The Adjustment Bureau" theorizes that the Earth is being controlled by a race of superhuman middle-aged men in magic fedoras. This premise could be absurd or frightening, but the movie plays without a trace of whimsy or horror. Instead, "The Adjustment Bureau" is like "City of Angels" and "Ghost Town," a romantic fantasy about benign supernatural forces interacting with humans in New York (I'll let someone else make the facile pop-psychology analysis). The cosmology of the film is explained in a couple of quick expository scenes, and therefore not that interesting, and the special effects are pretty mundane -- the producers seem to have budgeted more for high-profile cameos (John Stewart keeps showing up, and Michael Bloomberg drops in for a montage) than CGI. And the acting is competent but for the most part unspectacular. Still, "The Adjustment Bureau" has its charms.

Matt Damon plays a young New York congressman with no apparent party affiliation who discovers the Adjustment Bureau, an omnipotent but generally benevolent supernatural bureaucracy which guides human affairs -- kind of like a less malevolent CIA or more intrusive Google. How does Matt respond to this staggering metaphysical revelation? By obsessing over the fact that he's being kept from the girl of his dreams. And in fairness, that girl is pretty damn adorable -- Emily Blunt, as a charmingly impudent ballet dancer with a knock for short skirts and sharp quips. The hyper-romanticism of the plot makes it difficult to take "The Adjustment Bureau" all that seriously, and the epic scenes of men in suits and hats running through downtown Manhattan get a little boring after awhile. But Damon makes for a watchable if slightly inert man on a mission, like a less annoying Tom Cruise or slightly more animated Harrison Ford, and Blunt is outstanding as the unattainable object of desire. A bit more Blunt and "The Adjustment Bureau" could have been mesmerizing, but as is it's an okay movie that's worth adding to your Netflix queue if you like romance.


Leopold & Loeb Lite
"Compulsion" is not a masterpiece, but it's involving and suspenseful and will be enough to pique your interest in the Leopold & Loeb murder case. Nathan Leopold & Richard Loeb were two gay Jewish teen-aged geniuses enrolled in the University of Chicago who abducted and killed a 14-year-old boy in 1924 just for kicks. Legendary lawyer Clarence Darrow defended the killers at trial and saved them from execution. "Compulsion" retains all the superficial elements of the Leopold & Loeb case -- geniuses, Chicago, hotshot lawyer -- but changes all the names and purges the story of the more sensational elements to avoid lawsuits and a "Condemned" rating. But even though it's bowdlerized of sex and violence (the murder occurs off camera and the lads' romance is barely hinted at), it's still creepy enough to be an effective crime drama.

Much of that creepiness is generated by Bradford Dillman, who plays "Artie Steiner" (Loeb) as a sociopathic sissy whose myriad dysfunctions are nicely symbolized by the teddy-bear flask he totes around. Artie is clearly the dominant partner in the relationship, and while he's certainly charismatic enough to draw your attention Dillman plays up Artie's lunacy a bit too much to make him more magnetic than repulsive. Still, it's an impressive performance and Artie's Liberace-like devotion to his "Mumsy" is a hysterical touch. "Compulsion," however, is more focused on Dean Stockwell as "Judd Strauss" (Leopold), who has a bit more of a conscience than his dear friend Artie. The titular "compulsion" refers not only to the boys' impulse to commit murder but to Judd's apparent subconscious desire to be caught and punished for his crime. Just like Dillman overplays the psychopathy, Stockwell overplays the earnesty and we spend a little bit of time wondering exactly why these two are hanging out so much, although a scene which establishes that Judd's family hates Artie goes some way towards explaining that, if only because it's the only scene in which Stockwell acts as queeny as Dillman. Since this was a major-studio movie and the central characters are fairly hideous, producer Zanuck hedges his bets by top-billing big name Orson Welleseven though he doesn't show up until the last half of the picture, and second-billing babe Diane Varsi, two years removed from "Peyton Place" and looking like a prettier version of Joanne Woodward. Welles plays "Jonathan Wilk" (Darrow) with a slightly hammy world-weariness but he doesn't chew too much scenery and his plea for the life of the deadly duo is almost compelling. Varsi, two years removed from "Peyton Place" and still loaded with the potential that she would spend the next decade squandering, plays Stockwell's romantic interest (more like a beard) and doesn't have much more to do than look faintly disturbed. She does it plausibly enough, though, to reawaken Stockwell's humanity and make us all sorry that she was too fragile to build a decent career for herself. But instead of competing with Jane Fonda and Faye Dunaway for Oscars, she ended up competing with Tura Satana and Susan Strasberg for bit parts in camp classics. A tragic waste.

The Snake Pit

Is Freud Right For You?
"The Snake Pit" is a 2-hour infomercial for the then-budding (in 1948) field of psychoanalysis. Its view of mental illness was probably very enlightened for the time but seems positively quaint and, really, rather sexist by modern standards. Still, it features an excellent performance by Olivia de Havilland as a woman committed to an state mental hospital. Olivia resorts to histrionics in only a couple of scenes, and elsewhere finds many different ways to play a character who is not quite "right" - she'll be tired and dull-witted one moment, agitated and demanding the next, compassionate and troubled the next. In short, her character is schizophrenic, but she manages to make her sympathetic and complex without being pathetic. The pathos is left to the other patients in the asylum -- every character actress in Hollywood is granted a bit of screen time, and they all make the most of it. The best is the old lady who keeps a running commentary about how sick all her fellow inmates are -- she's funny enough to be a bit player in a Marx Brothers movie, but here she's quite disturbing.

Still, to enjoy Livvy and the loony ladies, you have to endure a pretty contrived plot. Virginia, as played by Olivia, starts having psychotic episodes shortly after she marries the most saintly man on Earth, Robert (played by the justly forgotten Mark Stevens). After Virginia committed, the most patient psychoanalyst in history, Dr. Mark Kik, begins piecing together the reasons for her breakdown on the assumption that understanding the source of her disorder will be the best way to cure it. Hence "The Snake Pit" is structured like a detective story, and the mystery, when revealed, isn't all that satisfying (although it does leave open the possibility that Virginia was bored senseless by her stiff of a husband). Still, the filmmakers are to be commended for their indictment of the mental-health system as brutal and inhumane. (And in truth, they make a far better case against it than "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest" three decades later.) One wishes they hadn't been quite so blinkered by then-current prejudices, which maintained that poor mothering is the source of all evil and a woman needs a healthy relationship with a man to be rational, but on balance, "The Snake Pit" is a pretty brave film.


Dr. Strangelove's Somber Cousin
Nuclear war was a hot topic back in 1964 -- Bob Dylan was singing songs about it ("With God On Our Side"), Lyndon Johnson was making campaign commercials about it (the "Daisy" spot that I've never understood), and Stanley Kubrick and Sidney Lumet were making movies about it ("Dr. Strangelove" and "Fail-Safe," respectively). "Strangelove" and "Fail-Safe" have identical stories -- a misunderstanding leads to nuclear devastation -- and are similar in visual style -- both filmed in the shadowy black-and-white that, in cinematic terms, indicates intellectual heft. But "Strangelove" is much better-remembered today, in part because Kubrick is considered an auteur and Lumet a talented journeyman, and in part because "Strangelove" is a comedy while "Fail-Safe" is about as funny as, well, a nuclear war. Plus, the dialogue can get a bit stiff and some of the acting is a tad wooden. Still, Lumet, his star Henry Fonda and screenwriter Walter Bernstein should be commended for having the moral courage to stare unthinkable horror in the face without giggling nervously. They also managed to make a very gripping movie.

The plot is familiar to fans of 80s New Wave songs -- sparks in the software cause a nuclear error, and, shades of "Strangelove," a plane that can't be recalled is on its way to bomb the USSR into oblivion. Except for a couple of stylistic gimmicks at the beginning and end of the movie, "Fail-Safe" is made in a dry, docudrama style, with no music, quick cutting or split screens. There's also a lot more stock footage spliced in than one would expect of a major studio movie. In short, "Fail-Safe" looks like it was made on the cheap. But that's fine, higher production values equate with higher entertainment value, and to paraphrase one of the characters, nuclear war isn't some damn football game.

Most of the action is divided between Strategic Air Command in Omaha, the Pentagon and the White House. Helplessly watching the approach of the apocalypse at SAC are Frank Overton as a gruff but compassionate commander and Fritz Weaver as a patriotic but unstable colonel. Debating the morality of war at the Pentagon are Walter Matthau as a pompous academic and Dan O'Herlihy as a sensitive general. On the phone with the Kremlin from the White House basement are Henry Fonda, as the kind of wise, affable, slightly melancholy president we all try to convince ourself is serving as commander-in-chief, and Larry Hagman, surprisingly subtle and vulnerable as the POTUS' nervous interpreter. There are also some effectively tense scenes in the plane on the way to Moscow. It's a macho world, and all the gentlemen conduct themselves with the dignified reserve expected of mid-20th century, establishment WASPs. This is the real "Mad Men."


Halfway Home
"Pleasantville" as about a pair of modern teenagers who are transported into a black-and-white 50s TV show. That scenario has disaster potential of FEMA proportions, so when the filmmakers avoided making a post-modern film version of "Gilligan's Island" starring Will Ferrell is half the battle. And director Gary Ross got just about everything else about "Pleasantville" half-right, which makes for a halfway decent viewing experience, nowhere near as bad as it could be, but not as good either.

The look of the scenes in the sitcom small-town is half-right -- the costumes, hairstyles and set decorations are perfect, but the pretty black-and-white cinematography and odd camera angles are more reminiscent of an art movie by Scorcese or Woody Allen than grainy single-set 50s TV. The casting is half-right. Don Knotts as the mysterious TV repairman who transforms people into sitcom characters? Perfect. Tobey Maguire as the nerdy, unpopular teen obsessed with an old family sitcom? Way too easy. Looking at Tobey Maguire back in 1998, you assumed he was a geek, so he coasts on his charisma deficit and doesn't bother creating much of a character. Reese Witherspoon as the slutty girl who introduces sexual liberation into the staid 1950s? Brilliant. This was before anyone knew how good she was, and her depth and intelligence shine through this gimmicky role -- her sense of mischief in her early sitcom scene is hilarious, her transformation into a more thoughtful young woman is quite moving. Jeff Daniels as the soda jerk with artistic aspirations? Confused. Is his character stupid or repressed? Daniels never figures it out so he plays it both ways and winds up just kind of stiff and awkward. Finally, the politics of "Pleasantville" are halfway thought-provoking. A few scenes of book burning and threatened gang rape are enough to make you wonder if "Pleasantville" is about the sentimental impulse at the heart of fascism. But that's kind of intense for an American movie so it almost literally backs away from that idea in a bizarre edit and becomes a sentimental movie about self-acceptance and self-actualization. Which is fine, just not incredibly distinctive. Good but not great.


"Joan, dear, maybe it's time for a TV series,"
. . . Joan Crawford's agent (no doubt a very brave man) should have told her. "Maybe a dramatic anthology, we could get you a recurring role on 'Peyton Place,' hell, I'll have Tennesse Williams write you a play and you'll finally be on Broadway. But please, don't do 'Berserk.' I know you're a Christian Scientist but all the prayer in the world won't heal your career if you make this bomb." However, Joan was a strong-willed lady (to put it mildly) and so she went, well, "Berserk." This might be the worst idea, ever, for a motion picture. It's a cheapie that intersperses scenes of circus acts with a grisly serial-killer mystery. Which means it's supposed to appeal to small children and teenaged horror fans -- two audience segments which should not, repeat, not be in the same theater. Perhaps knowing what kind of turkey they were stuffing, the screenwriters didn't worry too much about continuity. "Berserk" may set a cinematic record for unresolved plot points. What happened to Joan's husband? Why did the trapeze artist kill a man in Toronto? Why is the cockney midget stalking Joan? Maybe the filmmakers intended to tie all these loose threads together but apparently they got so sick of making this movie that they concocted a ridiculous deux ex machina for an ending and called it a wrap. ("Nice working with you, Miss Crawford." "I wish -- hic! -- I could say the -- hic! -- same.")

The plot, such as it is, centers around Joan as the owner of a traveling circus in Britain. Is Joan supposed to be English? The movie never bothers to explain her accent, but her ungrateful blonde daughter (shades of things to come!) is played by the very British Judy Geeson. Joan's performers and business associates start dying mysteriously, but she isn't too upset by it, since the bad publicity is good for business and her legs still look good in her Mistress of Ceremonies costume. Her romantic interest is "portrayed" by Ty Hardin, who's half her age and half as animated. Hardin would go on to join the Aryan Nation in the 1970s, perhaps blaming "the Jews who run Hollywood" for his film non-career. He should blame his mediocre looks and lack of talent instead. The circus acts are mildly entertaining, the foppish detective investigating the murders is moderately amusing, but the horror is, for the most part, pretty lame -- the producers apparently didn't budget for much blood so only one or the murders is even remotely gory. Watch at your own risk.

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