The Phantom Chariot (1921)

Article #1030 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 1-9-2004
Posting Date: 6-7-2004
Directed by Victor Sjostrom
Featuring Victor Sjostrom, Hilda Borgstrom, Tore Svennberg

A man dies at midnight on New Year’s Eve, and consequently must take over the job of driving the chariot of the dead for the next year. In doing so he comes face to face with the consequences of his actions while he still lived.

I could sum up this story very simply by pointing out that this movie is essentially a variation on a very well-known story; however, to do so would give away the ending and I have no intention of doing that. Part of the reason is that the movie is singularly powerful; the main character handles his inner pain by drinking and becoming cruel and mean, and there’s something heartbreaking at seeing the petty nature of some of his cruel deeds; in particular, a sequence where he spends the night at a mission and discovers in the morning that one of the volunteers has sewn up the holes in his coat results in some truly stupid and mean behavior on his part. Another reason is that the movie stands so well on its own that it should be viewed on its own merits, and not as a variation on another story. The fantastic aspects are truly wonderful; the visions of the rickety transparent carriage driving through the streets, and Death sadly carrying the souls of the departed into the carriage are wonderful It’s one of those movies that does such a wonderful job of balancing the fantastic and the dramatic, and it remains another unknown silent classic of Fantastic cinema. This one is highly recommended.

Night Star, Goddess of Electra (1964)

Article #1029 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 1-8-2004
Posting Date: 6-6-2004
Directed by Giuseppe Vari
Featuring John Drew Barrymore, Susy Andersen, Ettore Mani

An agent from Rome investigates the doings of a strange cult that is fighting a battle with them.

This movie opens with a scene of villagers battling helmeted men on horseback; you need go no farther than this to know that you’re watching a peplum. However, the second scene shows several ugly, slightly deformed men stripping the dead soldiers of their gear, and this should clue you off that this is no ordinary peplum. In fact, this is perhaps the most horror-oriented peplum this side of HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD, and it’s the horror elements that bring this one to life, particularly near the end when an army of dead soldiers arises to do battle. This makes up for the fact that the movie is quite slow at times and that the middle section (with lots of double-crosses, traps and betrayals) is quite confusing. Still, I do wonder who comes up with these titles; there’s no Night Star or Electra mentioned in the movie (though I’m sure the one-eyed statue is one of them), so I suspect that whoever gave the movie its English title didn’t bother to watch much of it first.

Fingers at the Window (1942)

Article #1028 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 1-7-2004
Posting Date: 6-5-2004
Directed by Charles Lederer
Featuring Lew Ayres, Laraine Day, Basil Rathbone

An out-of-work actor saves a woman who is being stalked by an axe-murderer. Then, when another axe-murderer shows up, he begins to suspect there is more to the situation than meets the eye.

This movie has a nice premise (there is a rash of axe murders being committed, though all by different mental patients whose last names begin with a “B”, and the opening of the movie is scary and suspenseful. Unfortunately, the movie loses steam as it moves along, partially because the story emphasizes the exploits of a chatty actor (Lew Ayres) whose presence is more apt to destroy the suspense in a scene rather than add to it; had the focus been on the woman being threatened, the movie would have worked better. As it is, the movie leaves you a little too much time to notice that the story doesn’t hold together very well, and the ending turns out to be rather disappointing. And though I’m no expert on psychiatry, I do know that paranoia, schizophrenia and split personality are all distinct and separate mental illnesses, whereas this movie almost uses them interchangeably.

The Green Hornet Strikes Again (1941)

Article #1027 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 1-6-2004
Posting Date: 6-4-2004
Directed by Ford Beebe and John Rawlins
Featuring Warren Hull, Keye Luke, Wade Boteler

The Green Hornet tries to break up an insurance racket.

I’ve figured out a general rule of serials; usually you have either an interesting hero or an interesting villain; rarely do they give you both. In this case, the hero is the center of attraction. His theme song is the appropriate “Flight of the Bumblebee”, he tools around in a speedy car that makes a buzzing noise, and he has a gas gun (the sole science-fiction concept here) that puts his enemies to sleep. Furthermore, he is not recognized as a hero by the police or the public; he is thought of as a gangster, and he plays the part up. This being the case, he cannot expect the cooperation of the police or his friends when he is disguised as the Hornet; in fact, one of his employees (he is a newspaper editor in real life) is an Irish ex-cop obsessed with catching the Hornet, and this conflict provides one of the better running jokes throughout the serial. The villain, however, is nothing more than a dullish old guy sitting at a desk and telling people what to do. It would have more interesting if Jay Michael, who plays a campy, rather slimy gangster who pops up in the fourteenth episode, had been the real boss; his performance was a hoot.

Oddly enough, I didn’t see a whole lot of cliffhangers that had the cliche I’ve been complaining about in this one; you know, where it looks like the hero is going to crash, and you find out in the next episode he bailed out just in time. However, we do have a number of accident cliffhangers, but the revelation is usually that the hero just happened to survive, which is even less interesting. Maybe it’s because this is the first Universal serial I’ve seen in a while after a string of Republic ones. I also noticed it’s less action-oriented and talkier, the fights are not as interesting, and the cliffhangers in general are rather lame. Still, it gets points for having an interesting hero.

Black Limelight (1938)

Article #1026 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 1-5-2004
Posting Date: 6-3-2004
Directed by Paul L. Stein
Featuring Joan Marion, Raymond Massey, Elliott Mason

A woman discovers that her husband is wanted by the police on suspicion of being a serial killer.

The “Black Limelight” of the title is a metaphor to capture the experience of becoming well-known for infamy, and though this theme serves as a backdrop for some of the events, it really doesn’t seem to be the center of the story. The serial killer angle is what moves the story into horror territory, and the question of the man’s guilt is what drives the story. The first half is a talky drama, with some unnecessary characters and subplots, and it isn’t really until the husband shows up that things start to really take off, and it ends strongly. The best moment is a monologue delivered by Joan Marion in which she ponders the reason why her husband found it necessary to have an affair (the last victim of the killer was the husband’s lover).

Solitare Attacks (1966)

Article #1025 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 1-4-2004
Posting Date: 6-2-2004
Directed by Ralph Habib
Featuring Sophie Agacinski, Teresa Gimpera, Gisele Grandpre

Spies must recover a suitcase with a bomb and the tape recording that can open the suitcase so the bomb can be disconnected.

This French/Spanish entry in the superspy category was a little difficult to track down, since my reference book gave a title (THE SOLITARY GOES TO THE ATTACK) that brought up nothing on IMDB; I eventually matched it up with LE SOLITAIRE PASSE A L’ATTAQUE by matching cast and director information, but the listing gave no English title. I eventually found it under the title SOLITARE ATTACKS, though the print I found is actually missing the title of the movie; fortunately, the cast list does appear to match the one I’m looking for, so I’ll say I found it. A handful of gadgets makes this marginal science fiction. Other than that, it’s a pretty ordinary European Bond imitation, mostly notable for having a somewhat sharper sense of humor than usual; in particular, I like the response of one of the spies when a woman overhears them defeating two men who are good shots and concludes that they are indeed spies. And don’t ask me who or what Solitare is; the name isn’t mentioned once during the course of the movie.

Punishment Park (1971)

Article #1024 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 1-3-2004
Posting Date: 6-1-2004
Directed by Peter Watkins
Featuring Jim Bohan, Paul Alelyanes, Carmen Argenziano

Several people are arrested on grounds of subversive activity and given the choice between going to prison and trying to escape their sentences by participating in a race against time in a desert known as Punishment Park.

This is social science fiction. It doesn’t specify whether it takes place in the near future or in an alternate universe (Nixon is still portrayed as being the president), but I suspect that it isn’t really supposed to matter. In fact, since the whole thing is very convincingly shot as a documentary, it may well be that the makers were hoping that it would mistaken for one. Ultimately, though I admire the craft of making this look convincing, it’s also obvious and predictable once you figure out that it’s fiction-with-a-message; knowing this type of movie, you should be able to figure out just how many of the participants in the race regain their freedom. And the endless arguments between the counterculturists/revolutionaries and the members of the establishment do get tiresome after a while. It’s powerful enough, but as always, one should consider the nature of film-making and remind themselves that it is a piece of fiction before they decide what lessons they wish to glean from it.

Peter Ibbetson (1935)

Article #1023 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 1-2-2004
Posting Date: 5-31-2004
Directed by Henry Hathaway
Featuring Gary Cooper, Ann Harding, John Halliday

Two childhood sweethearts are separated as youths, and then meet again many years later to discover they are still very much in love.

The fantastic aspect of this movie doesn’t manifest itself until the second half of the movie, and to tell you the events that lead up to it would be giving away huge chunks of the plot, so all I will say at this point is that the two main characters are able to share the same dreams by which they can be together through a forced separation. In short, this is romantic fantasy. It’s fairly good, with decent performances from all concerned, unexpected plot twists, and some interesting secondary characters. An earlier version of the Du Maurier story appeared in 1921, but I have been unable to find that one.

The Pearl of Death (1944)

Article #1022 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 1-1-2004
Posting Date: 5-30-2004
Directed by Roy William Neill
Featuring Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, Dennis Hoey

When Sherlock Holmes inadvertently becomes responsible for the theft of a rare pearl, he matches wits with a man named Conover to recover the pearl.

This is another enjoyable entry in the Universal Sherlock Holmes series, and it may be one of the most horror-oriented of the series. A good deal of this has to do with the presence of Rondo Hatton as the back-breaking character known as the Creeper, who was so popular that two other movies (HOUSE OF HORRORS and THE BRUTE MAN) were made around the character. Here he is given no dialogue and remains in the shadows for most of the movie; in fact, the final confrontation marks one of the rare times I’ve ever seen Holmes to look really scared. In all respects, this is a solid entry in the series, with both Bruce and Hoey providing a fair amount of comic relief.

On a side note, some of these Sherlock Holmes movies were made during the war, so it’s not surprising when the wartime propaganda creeps in. However, in both this entry and THE SCARLET CLAW, I couldn’t help but admire the tasteful and dignified way that this was handled, with final speeches by Holmes that were both subtle and stirring, while avoiding overt preachiness. Though I am not fond of propaganda, I can admire how effective it can be when done well.

My Brother Talks to Horses (1947)

Article #1021 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 12-31-2003
Posting Date: 5-29-2004
Directed by Fred Zinnemann
Featuring Jackie ‘Butch’ Jenkins, Peter Lawford, Beverly Tyler

A bank teller deals with his eccentric family, in particular with his younger brother who is able to understand the language of horses.

It’s hard to make plot summaries of movies that are essentially dramas, as this one is; this is true even if the drama revolves around a fantastic premise. In fact, the movie’s fantastic premise seems just one element in the story, which is equal parts “You Can’t Take It With You” (the eccentric family with Spring Byington), the boy-and-his-dog story (substitute horse, though dogs play into it as well), and a subplot in which the boy’s ability (which allows him to figure out who will win at the horse races) garners the attention of some men interested in making a killing at the race track. Unfortunately, these three story elements never really mesh into a satisfying whole. It’s the boy’s relationship with the horses that make for the most effective moments, particularly during a traumatic horse race which is the best sequence of the movie. The basic message of the story is pretty simplistic (whatever happens is for the best no matter how bad it may seem at the time), and the kid (who bears an uncanny resemblance to Mortimer Snerd with his buck teeth and freckles) looks almost like a parody of what a cute little boy is supposed to look like; nonetheless, he was a very good actor and what success this movie has is in good part attributable to his performance, as well as to that of the animals and the character actors that populate the cast.