The Frisco Kid - 1935
The Frisco Kid - Released November 30, 1935 - Directed by Lloyd Bacon
James Cagney throws punches and concocts shady business ideas fast in this 77 minute mini-epic of 18th century lawlessness in San Francisco. Most of the conflict is between the denizens of the area called the "Barbary Coast" and the regular citizens and leaders of the less corrupt areas of the city. The contest between the two groups is to determine how the rapidly growing city (a gold rush is going on at this time) will make its money and run its government.
Cagney (as Bat Morgan) is a sailor who gets mugged by a gang of local shanghai specialists who intend to sell him off to a merchant ship off the coast that is needing crew for a trip to China. Bat outsmarts them and ends up selling their leader to the merchant craft instead. Befriended by Solly, a Yiddish tailor (George E. Stone) who takes him in off the street after he gets beaten up badly, the two form an odd duo who take on corrupt San Francisco on its own terms, with the tailor (Solly) being a good influence trying to steer Bat toward the straight and narrow (Solly also provides some Yiddish proverbs along the way). Solly isn't very effective as Bat is determined to gain wealth and prestige whatever the cost, though by following his own code which relies more on organizing and controlling the criminal enterprises in the red light district instead of promulgating them.
Meanwhile, as Bat rises up through the ranks of Frisco's crookeddom, he is smitten with a proper lady (Margaret Lindsay) who is connected with the best families in the city and is dedicated to doing what is right via the newspaper she owns, just as her father was doing before being murdered for his outspoken opposition against local perfidity.
As Solly says:
"Don't forget, Bat, when you first came here you were just a plain sailor. Now you work in a dive on Pacific Street. And ...she's a real lady."
Not too long after saying this Solly takes a bullet when an assassination attempt is made on Bat by competing bad guys. Grief-stricken (and angry), Bat is then at the cemetery overseeing a monument stone being put up to his dead friend (with a very bold Mogen David right on the front) when he meets up with Jean Barrat (Lindsay) who is at her father's grave.
The pair build up a fledgling infatuation between them which has Bat occasionally doing secretive favors for his love ideal. But his good deeds aren't enough to stop the coming armed confrontation between San Francisco's corrupt powers and the citizen groups which form a vigilante army, complete with rifles and bayonets, determined to put an end to the lawlessness in their midst once and for all.
Bat runs out of time to make a choice between which side he is really on when Jean's crusading newspaper editor (Donald Wood) is murdered, and by this point she's not going to cut Bat anymore slack for his wishy-washy morality, and excoriates him in person and flatly states she now hates him, then dismisses him roundly with a promise to never see or speak to him again.
Bat returns to his crime kingdom with an insurmountable problem on his hands: how to limit the coming bloodshed and to finally live up to the standards he has been staring at from afar. He makes an attempt to send his fellow criminals out of town by warning them they'll all be killed or jailed by the avenging vigilante army, but it's too little and too late. When Bat gets rounded up with other Barbary Coast 'businessmen" and put to trial by a mob jury, he is sentenced to hanging. Will Jean Barrat step in to try and save her former lover and hated enemy?
Director Bacon keeps the story rolling at a breathless rate, and the tale covers a lot of ground with its limited run time. The story moves like a fever dream in which Bat Morgan yearns for riches and power and then starts attaining it by being a criminal Horatio Alger, but he has a nagging ethical issue because as much as he says the world is run by "kicks in the face" he is hamstrung by the fact that the only people he admires and loves are the humble and gentle tailor Solly and the prim and proper Jean Barrat. The script by Warren Duff and Seton Miller doesn't have much space to work out any of this realistically, and the movie and delivery of the main dilemmas are all rolled up in Cagney's energetic performance, which he ably provides.
Arachnia - 2003
Arachnia - Released August 5, 2003 - Directed by Brett Piper
Low budget and a hurried shooting style plagues this giant-spider movie. A small plane with a charter flight of science students and their professor crash land into a rural landscape. The group, along with their pilot (Rob Monkiewicz) take refuge at what they think is an abandoned house, but the owner, a crotchety old man (James Aspden) shows up. Random noises and events lead them to suspect something is outside of the house, and soon they hear from the owner about the problem with the local enormous mutant spiders.
With disbelief out of the way (for the cast, not the audience, the spiders themselves are never that convincing) the group must escape and alert the military. To do so they have to devise a plan that doesn't include actually telling the military such an unbelievable story about giant spiders (the solution, which is funny, is given by science student and group surrogate mother-bear played by Irene Jospeh.)
The performances in the film range from fine to amateur. The cast plugs away with a lot of energy, but the editing, limited camera angles and pacing doesn't help the scenes that feature dialogue instead of fighting bugs. Director and writer Piper keeps Arachnia moving rapidly along, and it makes me wish someone could have handed him a better effects budget, more time to shoot his scenes and maybe some help to tighten everything up. Humor permeates the script which helps Arachnia to be much more fun than its production values would otherwise warrant.
The Biggest Bundle of Them All - 1968
The Biggest Bundle of Them All, Released - Jan 17, 1968. Directed by Ken Annakin
In an effort to steal a trainload of platinum in Italy, Robert Wagner (as Harry Price) teams up with retired mafioso Cesare Celli (Vittorio De Sica), and using a plan devised by "Professor Samuels" (Edward G Robinson) they assemble the tools and equipment needed to stop the train, break into the guarded freight car, and to spirit away the loot to a waiting airplane (a surplus WWII B-17 bomber) with the intention to then getting it out of the country to Morocco.
The problem is that Cesare and Harry are always arguing over who should be in charge of their gang of mostly incompetent and completely amateur crooks (Godfrey Cambridge, Davy Kaye, Francesco Mule). To further add to their problems, Harry seems to think every problem can be solved by waving a gun around, and "Mafioso" Cesase is not really retired, but more put-out-to-pasture because his connections and know-how is ridiculously not up to the task at hand.
The film is light-hearted and well-oiled with jokes, and the script by Sy Salkowitz and Josef Shaftel parodies other "heist" movies like Ocean's Eleven. Instead of the precision and split-second improvisation featured in other robbery movies of this type, in The Biggest Bundle of Them All the only thing that operates according to plan for these likeable crooks is the 'Professor's' ingenious use of an old tank, a conveyor belt and other bits of technology as they swipe the platinum and then load it onto the Flying Fortress which proves in the end to have too many buttons in the cockpit.
Director Annakin makes the most of the beautiful Italian countryside and Raquel Welch, both of which are central to the film visuals. The music by Riz Ortoiano emphasizes Italy, but it comes pounding into scenes so loudly and repeatedly that it requires some patience.
The Mummy - 1932
The Mummy - Released Dec 22, 1932. Directed by Karl Freund
Remade endlessly since 1932, The Mummy is the story of the vengeful Egyptian priest Imhotep who is put under wraps "forever" because of his undying love for Ankh-es-en-amon, the young woman that his infatuation pursues across centuries and causes him to cross both the ancient Egyptian gods and the ancient (and modern) Egyptian authorities.
Whereas Frankenstein was a monster film about science gone wrong, and Dracula about appetites with a vaguely demonic origin (and a vaguely Christian solution), The Mummy is an occultic tour of Hollywood's idea of what ancient Egyptian supernatural power was like without nary a mention of Hollywood's other Egyptian interest, Moses and the slaves (and the God of the slaves. Though the 1999 remake of The Mummy with Brandon Fraser does veer into this area briefly). In this original 1932 version, though, this problem with a rampaging mummy is specifically an Egyptian problem that manages not to include Egypt's dominant religion, Islam, but does show off a lot of stylized and very well-done Hollywood production design
Karloff is only wrapped up in the iconic bandages for a small portion of the movie, but then Boris takes to the kind of well-dressed, delicate, carefully spoken and genteel aggression that he specialized in for so many other films. Zita Johann is Helen Grosvenor, daughter of an English diplomat who has the unwelcome chore of channeling the reincarnation of Ankh-es-en-amon and is consequently under Imhotep's (who in 1932 Egypt is going by the name Ardath Bey) obsessive gaze.
Edward Van Sloan is Van Helsing again (actually named Doctor Muller here) who knows the secrets of why Ardath Bey is hanging around the Cairo museum, lovingly peering down at the coffin of Ankh-es-en-amon. As the proper Englishmen (David Manners and Arthur Byron) jest and scoff at the reason there are bodies piling up (a mummy is on the loose), it will be the patient Van Sloan who pulls everyone's fat out of the fire, well, that and a suddenly weaponized ancient Egyptian idol.
Jack Pierce's makeup for Karloff is first-rate and has been imitated ever since. Director Freund continues the gothic mode of the original Universal monster movies and this too has been much imitated, especially in the vast list of Universal Mummy sequels. Not until Hammer's Chris Lee/Peter Cushing reboot in 1959 did the style of Freund's The Mummy get updated to a quicker, sleeker and more aggressive version, though one that lost all of Ardath Bey's subtle menace.
The Priest's Wife - 1970
The Priest's Wife - Released December 22, 1970 (Italy). Directed by Dino Risi
aka: La moglie del prete
This comedy film can't commit 100% to being a comedy. By the end The Priest's Wife has squandered a lot of it's funniness to finally roll credits after a scene in which the love-struck Catholic priest (a very controlled and precise Marcello Mastroianni) seems to have been re-seduced by the church and is now insipidly hoping to keep his engaged bride (Sophia Loren) dangling while he enjoys the splendor of a sudden appointment to a high rank (with extravagant perks) within the priest hierarchy in Rome.
Getting to such a dismal ending doesn't seem pre-ordained, though. The Priest's Wife starts off with an excellent and humorous car-duel section in which Sophia (as Valeria) has suddenly discovered her boyfriend of four years actually has a wife and kids elsewhere, so in a white-hot rage she charges after him in a tiny Fiat and he flees in a separate little Fiat. This turns into an absurd car chase and demolition section with the small cars crashing into one another and being steadily torn apart, like two Circus clown cars in a mock bull-fighting match.
Later, Valeria is suicidal over the betrayal and calls a suicide hotline on a whim, briefly talks to Marcello (as Priest Don Mario) who can't really convince her of anything, and she hangs up and takes pills anyway, ending up in a hospital where she then calls on the priest to come visit her.
A friendship and then a hesitant and goofy infatuation develops between the two. Mastroianni and Loren work on screen together like a perfect Swiss time-piece, but the script (Ruggero Maccari and Bernardino Zapponi) can't let them be and starts smuggling in a secondary movie about the plight of priests and a look into the kind of working conditions in which they live. There's no reason all these comedy and non-comedy elements couldn't have gelled together, though, funny movies have been able to stay comedies and ingest all kinds of human condition side trips since at least Chaplin's films. But The Priest's Wife can't handle that mission and schisms, reducing the main characters into flat caricatures and Mastroianni's masterful fumbling and groping loses its charm.
Director Risi injects subtle commentary throughout about the priestly life, and mostly with a great deal of sympathy amid the humor. As long as the movie is a romantic comedy (the majority of the film) about an extremely unlikely couple, Risi can get away with just about anything, show and say anything to us about whether he likes, hates, or is just amused about the Catholic universe, as Loren and Mastroianni are just that good and we're on their side. But, and here's the main problem with the movie, Loren (who is the main focus of Risi's camera throughout The Priest's Wife) is apparently supposed to be cuckolded at the end just as she was at the beginning, but this time by the entire Catholic Church, and that just isn't a large enough or good enough "gag" to pay off the audience after 103 minutes (I want the romantic comedy to end like a romantic comedy, not a documentary). In essence, Valeria is reduced to having been a pair of eyes that allowed us to roam about inside the priest's world and to ultimately see it as artificial, constrained by cultural and family pressures, with prestige used as a poor substitute for human feeling (this secondary messaging can be interesting, though, in one section Risi seems to be insinuating that there's not a lot of difference between priests and rock and roll stars, particularly in their treatment by and to women). But because of the ending the movie has the feeling of "bait and switch" and this is not fair to Valeria, the movie audience, and just not very funny.
Loren is very good as the expressive and fiery Valeria, and Mastroianna plays the Priest Don Mario with respect and constraint (except he's kind of goofy, but, then, this was a comedy at first). Location shots around Padua, Tuscany, and Rome are gorgeous with nice cinematography by Alfio Contini. The wardrobe is very 1970 (and colorful) and Loren gets to wear a variety of outfits. The car demolition intro to The Priest's Wife has fantastic stunt driving.
The Disembodied - 1957
The Disembodied - Released Aug 25, 1957. Directed by Walter Grauman
Director Grauman keeps The Disembodied moving at a very slow pace, perhaps to copy the similar hypnotic pace of older voodoo films like White Zombie, but the effect is not the same. Star Allison Hayes gets the lion's share of camera attention, and Grauman is content for us to watch her steadily go through the motions of a simplistic plot (or even just go up or down stairs) to use voodoo and seduction to get someone to murder her husband (Dr. Carl Metz, played by John Wengraf) for her (it will prove to be too tough of a job for anyone).
Hayes is not very demonstrative and this combined with a very low key acting style (she does a lot of steady walking through much of the story, camera glued to her) that if the script (by Jack Townley) had suddenly revealed she was in fact a zombie, it would have made more sense (particularly because her husband is sweating like a character from a Tennessee Williams' story in the jungle heat, Allison is perfectly coiffured and powdered.)
We don't ever find out why she wants her husband dead ("He's evil. He has no right to live" she says) or why he has some kind of power over her (or does he? It's not really clear. If anything, she's constantly manipulating him while he suffers his jealousy helplessly. Eventually he's trying to catch a ride out of the jungle to leave her behind, the very thing she was trying to do to him, which makes Allison furious).
Most of our script consists of Allison sneaking around trying to finagle help for her homicide plot and conducting a few Hollywood-style voodoo rituals which look like nightclub floor shows.
When a three-man troupe of documentary filmmakers with a wounded-comrade in tow come to the hidden station where the doctor practices (or actually tries not to practice, he sends a servant with a gun to scare them off so he won't be disturbed), Allison's character of Tonda Metz begins trying to lure their leader Joe (Robert Christopher) into her goal to kill her husband and take her away. He's very interested in the beautiful Tonda, but when she makes it clear by handing him a knife what she wants him to do, he refuses. She declares now that she wants to kill him, too, but then she backs up and returns to pleading for his help, and then declaring he'll come crawling back to her, which produces a pained, mixed-up look on his face, which is a reasonably good response to a lot of The Disembodied.
Cinematography (by Harry Neumann ) is usually good. The art direction doesn't have a lot to work with, the few sets of huts and a station house look suitable for any low budget jungle movie of the 1950s (the 'natives' say "bwana" frequently). The voodoo scenes have sacrificial chickens and the 'natives' painted, and a great deal of drumming, but really the story is less about a voodoo queen terrorizing the area than it is about a frustrated woman who can't make up her mind about what she wants (I guess that is courtesy of scripter Townley).
Allison doesn't have a very large wardrobe for this film, but then not a lot is really happening to require it. She wears an oriental sarong at first, but in one scene she leaves her doctor husband, and then returns to him in a completely different outfit, and that unexplainable change mirrors the unexplainable actions of The Disembodied's main character.
The Disembodied is currently streaming via Warner Archives online service.