Tuesday, August 18, 2009

'Trapped' is an okay flick with bad opening

Trapped (1949)
Starring: Lloyd Bridges, Barbara Payton, John Hoyt, and James Todd
Director: Richard Fleischer
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

Master-counterfeiter Tris Stewart (Bridges) is serving a long prison sentence when he is recruited by the Secret Service to help capture a new ring of forgers who are using the plates he once created to get rich on phony bills. Stewart, however, is no stoolie, and he gives the agents the slip with the intention of not only getting even with his former partners but also to escape the long arm or the law with his girl (Payton) and a quarter of a million in funny money that it will let him live like a king in Mexico. But the government sting is still in effect, and Stewart's escape is not as perfect as he thinks....

"Trapped" is a well-acted and beautifully filmed crime drama. Bridges is the perfect film noir tough guy, Payton is the classic bad girl in love with a worse man, and Hoyt (as a government agent undercover as a con man with the means to help Stewart with his plans) is great as the shady character with something to hide. The unfortunate thing about the film is that its opening minutes are painfully reminiscent of a bad educational film/documentary about the Department of the Treasury.

"Trapped" is worth seeing if you're a big fan of 1940s crime dramas, but just be aware that you're going to have to sit through some really hokey stuff at the very beginning. (It does get better, though.)

Saturday, August 15, 2009

A shining Angel is the focus for 'Half a Sinner'

Half a Sinner (1940)
Starring: Heather Angel, John King, Constance Collier, and Robert Elliot
Director: Al Christie
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

When Anne (Angel) comes to fear fear that she is growing old without ever having experienced any excitement, she decides to throw caution to the wind, buys a new outfit, and heads out for a day on the town during which she intends to enjoy herself and live life to its fullest. By the time her wild day is over, she's being chased by gangsters, a frustrated highway patrolman (Elliot), and has struck up a friendship with a rogueish stranger (King)... all while driving a stolen car with a dead body and incriminating evidence that everyone's looking for in the back seat.

"Half a Sinner" is a breezy comedy/thriller with romantic overtones that's more lighthearted than thrilling, despite the deadly gangsters and the corpse in the backseat. The beautiful Heather Angel, who excelled at playing adventuresome women, shines more brightly here than ever before... and in a couple of scenes almost too much so. In some scenes, Angel almost seems to be ovveracting.

However, it's not Angel that's the problem--she's as good in this film as any others I've seen her in, particularly since she's got a well-crafted script and excellent dialog to work with. No, the problem is the fact that her co-star King didn't have the screen presense to hold his own against her. King is certainly handsome, but his acting skills and personal charisma are miserably pale when set side-by-by side with Angel, who really needs to co-star with someone of the calibre of John Howard or Ray Milland (both of whom she appeared with in the "Bulldog Drummond" series).

Still, the script is fast-paced enough and well-written enough that the weak point that is King's acting abilities is more than made up for. The appearance of the overbearing Madame Beckenridge (Collier) late in the picture also helps, as we finally get to see Angel playing off against someone with more screen presence.

If you enjoy well-done, classic comedies, I think you'll enjoy "Half a Sinner". It's one of the best romps where the girl stays in the front seat of the car ever put on film.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Isle of the Dead is among Karloff's weaker films

Isle of the Dead (1945)
Starring: Boris Karloff, Ellen Drew, Marc Cramer, Helene Thimig and Katherine Emery
Director: Mark Robson
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

A diverse group of people quarantine themselves on a small Greek island to prevent a suspected plague from spreading to the army camped nearby on the mainland. As they wait for the disease to run its course, a hardbitten general (Karloff) comes to believe the superstitious ramblings of an old woman (Thimig) that the young maid (Drew) is an undead monster who is preying on their life force.

"Isle of the Dead" is one of the last in a string of legendary horror films that producer Val Lewton made for RKO. It is also one of the weakest, with an uneven script and a cast with acting styles that conflict; Emery and Thimig are chewing up the scenery in old-fashioned monster-movie style, while Drew gives a subtle performance that belongs in a romance film, while Cramer is just bland.

Karloff gives a mostly disappointing performance, seeming as if he is sleepwalking through the picture. The only time he comes alive is when his character makes a failed attempt at self-reflection. He manages to bring a little bit of menace to his role, but that's mostly attributable to the fact that the other actors in the picture have so little presence

Worst of all, the film has a terrible script. For most of its running time, the movie simply unspools in a dull fashion. The characters are on a supposedly plague-infested island, yet their behavior feels more like they are on just another vacation. This lack of tension is augmented by one of the worst insta-romances ever put on screen when the Greek maid inexplicably falls in love with the square-jawed and utterly bland American war correspondent (Cramer)over the space of a day they hardly see each other.

However, if you stay with the film, things start to get a lot more interesting in the last 20 minutes. From the kindhearted maid being tormented by the old crone through a closed door, to a mad killer stalking (and skewering) the surviving inhabitants of the island, we finally get to experience some of the dread and darkness that should have been present in at least a small degree from the very beginning of the film.

"Isle of the Dead" is contained in the Val Lewton Horror Collection along with the eight other films that Lewton produced for RKO and a documentary on his career. Karloff appeared in two other Lewton films, and I'll be writing about them in this space shortly.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

'The Woman Condemned' hasn't aged well

The Woman Condemned (1934)
Starring: Richard Hemingway, Claudia Dell, Lola Lane, Paul Ellis, and Mischa Auer
Director: Mrs. Wallace Reid
Rating: Five of Ten Stars

When a radio station's star attraction (Lane) takes a mysterious leave of absence, the station manager becomes concerned that the largest sponsor of her show may pull out. He hires a private detective (Dell) to locate her and to find out why she needed the break... but when the P.I. is arrested for the murder of the singer, things start to get desperate on all fronts.

"The Woman Condemned" is a film that straddles the line between the mystery and comedy genres. The weird way through which Dell's lady P.I. Barbara Hammond and skirt-chasing gossip reporter Jerry Beall (Hemingway) meet and get married is absurd and hilarious, but the plot surrounding the murder of the singer and Beall's attempts to uncover proof of Hammond's innocence is a pretty serious (if a bit far-fetched, once all the details come to light) mystery tale.

This is one of those films that time has passed by. The camerawork and acting is more reminiscent of a silent movie than is healthy for the film (I had the same complaint about the other film from this director that I've seen, "Sucker Money") and the third act twists have become more eye-rolling than shocking with the 70+ years of mystery films that have been made since its release. However, the pace is fast enough and the set-up odd enough that the film will keep the attention of viewers who enjoy 1930s cinema. (The plot is also engaging enough that with some updating and rewriting of the ending, it would make a better remake candidate than all those 1980s movies everyone in Hollywood seems intent on revisiting.)

Trivia: The person behind the odd director's credit of "Mrs. Wallace Reid" was the one-time hugely celebrated silent movie star Dorothy Davenport. She turned to writing and directed later in her career, using her husband's name as her byline. She continued this habit until 1935.