Manfish (1956)

MANFISH (1956)
Article #1379 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 12-23-2004
Posting Date: 5-22-2005
Directed by W. Lee Wilder
Featuring John Bromfield, Victor Jory, Lon Chaney Jr.

When a sailor discovers a skeleton at the bottom of the sea holding a bottle, he retrieves a ring and a map from it. He then tries to force the man with the matching ring to produce his half of the map so they go treasure hunting.

Don’t let the title fool you; this is not a variant on THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON; the manfish of the title is the name of a boat. And don’t let the fact that the movie is adapted from two Poe stories lead you into thinking it’s a horror movie; “The Gold Bug” is one of Poe’s non-horror stories, and the borrowings from “The Tell-Tale Heart” have little horror content to them. Yet, because of the title and the Poe and Chaney connections, some people lump this in to the horror category when it’s really just an adventure story of sorts with a small snatch of horror at times. On the plus side, some of the underwater imagery is memorable, Chaney has a decent role as the only really likable major character, Jory does a good job with his role even if he does chew the scenery a bit, and the Jamaican settings are suitably exotic. On the down side, the story isn’t much fun, especially as the two primary characters are both unpleasant characters; you get really tired of people calling each other “stupid” in the movie. It’s also turgidly directed, and even the Jamaican music isn’t particularly memorable. All in all, it’s a bit of a snoozer, if not totally worthless.

The Man in the Trunk (1942)

Article #1378 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 12-22-2004
Posting Date: 5-21-2005
Directed by Malcolm St. Clair
Featuring Lynne Roberts, George Holmes, Raymond Walburn

A lawyer makes a last ditch effort to save his client from execution when he discovers a body in a trunk that may end up clearing the man. He ends up with an unexpected sidekick when the dead man’s ghost also begins to take a hand in the proceedings.

Initially, I expected this comic mystery to be one of those movies that only got in under the bar due to marginal horror elements; the dead body in the trunk is a bit on the grisly side, and there is a moderately scary scene in an attic. The addition of the ghost to the mix puts it clearly into the realm of the fantastic. The ghost is largely used for comic purposes, and though his comic shtick threatens to become tiresome, Raymond Walburn’s bright performance keeps his character likable and fun. His best moments come from the character’s gimmick; he isn’t quite a “first-class ghost” yet, and so he’s unable to knock on tables or walk through walls. Some of his best bits involve him trying to get the humans around him to open locked doors for him. Still, his contributions to solving the mystery are pretty slight. In fact, the movie could have been done as a straight and somewhat suspenseful mystery had they omitted the ghost and made the prisoner on death row more sympathetic. This wouldn’t have solved the movie’s worst problem, though; the story itself is very confusing. Still, with the array of familiar names and faces in the cast (I recognized the names of J. Carrol Naish and Milton Parsons right off the bat, and though her name escaped me at first, I instantly recognized Eily Malyon), this proves to be a minor problem only.

Man in Black (1949)

Article #1377 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 12-21-2004
Posting Date: 5-20-2005
Directed by Francis Searle
Featuring Betty Ann Davies, Sheila Burrell, Sid James

When an old man dies as a result of a freak yoga “accident”, scheming relatives try to get hold of the heiress’s fortune by trying to frighten her into madness.

This movie starts out like an “old dark house” variant, but then shortly switches to a “Gaslight” variant. Given my general dislike for “Gaslight” variants, I found myself pleasantly surprised by how engaging this one is. There are actually a number of reasons for this. First of all, the movie doesn’t try to fool the viewer into thinking that any of the scare attempts are the result of real hauntings; we see and understand the scheming behind them from square one. Furthermore, the schemers consist of something more than a single man masquerading as a loving husband; here we have a conspiracy of three people, and at least one of them has designs of his own that threaten to undercut the plot. Another plus is that it is all put forth with a great deal of British wit and subtlety, and this keeps me engaged; most “Gaslight” variants seem rather crass and obvious in contrast. Perhaps the biggest plus of all is that the movie has some truly stunning tricks up its sleeve which it doesn’t start dealing out until the last fifteen minutes; as the movie nears its conclusion, you will be left wondering as to a) who is really going mad, b) who is falling into whose trap, and c) who is dead and who is alive. The ending is a real satisfying surprise. The title role is the narrator of the story, and he’s played by Valentine Dyall. Hammer fans will notice several familiar names in the credits, and sure enough, this is another one of Hammer’s earlier forays into horror. This one is highly recommended.

The Magic Carpet (1951)

Article #1376 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 12-20-2004
Posting Date: 5-19-2005
Directed by Lew Landers
Featuring Lucille Ball, John Agar, Patricia Medina

When a caliph is assassinated and a usurper takes his place at the throne, the original heir to the throne is spirited away on a flying carpet. Years later, the heir becomes a hero known as The Scarlet Falcon intent on removing the usurper from the throne.

This Arabian Nights epic never really gels; it either takes itself too seriously or not seriously enough; it depends on whether you consider the darker scenes (the torture sequence, the murder of the caliph and his family) or the lighter scenes (the hiccups sequence in particular) to be the ones that don’t belong. At any rate, there wouldn’t be much of interest to this one if it weren’t for the cast, but even the cast is a problem. John Agar does all right with the action scenes (and he seems to be having fun with them) but in the scenes where he’s supposed to be charming and sexy (such as the scene where the women of the harem flirt with him), he’s humorously wooden. And whatever her reputation as one of the greatest of television’s comedic actresses, Lucille Ball is so unconvincing as an Arabian Princess that she’s a major distraction; at least if she had been given the Patricia Medina role, she might have had a little comic shtick to do. I just read a piece of trivia that said that this movie was designed as a punishment to Lucille Ball for complaining about the quality of the roles she was getting, and I find this quite believable. Still, any movie in which Lucille Ball flirts with both John Agar and Raymond Burr is one that’s hard to ignore.

The Mad Magician (1954)

Article #1375 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 12-19-2004
Posting Date: 5-18-2005
Directed by John Brahm
Featuring Vincent Price, Mary Murphy, Eva Gabor

A magician begins disposing of people who get in his way.

This movie was made as a follow-up to HOUSE OF WAX; like the earlier movie, it was made in 3D, featured Vincent Price, took place in a period setting, and featured set-pieces to show off the 3D effects (a yo-yo spinner, a hawker with a fake extendable hand, a magician who throws cards out at the audience and sprinkles them with water). Unfortunately, the story feels cobbled together (though certain individual scenes work well enough), and it lacks the mood and ambiance of the earlier movie. It also has a few distractions; whatever Price’s talents were, he wasn’t a master mimic, and every time he goes into disguise as someone else the dubbing is painfully obvious. It’s also hard to believe that Eva Gabor (Price’s scheming amoral ex-wife) was ever “innocent” as described by Price, but that may have been the magician’s own innocence shining through. One scene of the movie features Price disguised as his first murder victim while disposing of that same victim’s body, which is a clever idea. Unfortunately, the method of disposal (the body is disguised as a dummy and placed publicly on a huge pile of wood for a bonfire) had my deja vu bells going off, and when I noticed that the director was John Brahm, I knew where I had seen this method before; in Brahm’s earlier movie with Laird Cregar HANGOVER SQUARE.

S.O.S. Coast Guard (1937)

Article #1374 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 12-18-2004
Posting Date: 5-17-2005
Directed by Alan James and William Witney
Featuring Ralph Byrd, Bela Lugosi, Maxine Doyle

A scientist invents a gas that disintegrates everything and has sold a shipment of it to a foreign country. It is up to Lt. Terry Kent of the Coast Guard to prevent this from happening.

Most of Bela Lugosi’s serials are on the cheesy side; it doesn’t mean they weren’t fun, but the cheapness was pretty obvious. This is probably the best of his serials in terms of production quality (having been made with Republic), but unless you’re watching the last and the first episodes, you might be a bit disappointed if you’re a Lugosi fan, as he usually has only about a couple of minutes in each episode. Most of the running time is devoted to the good guys, with soon-to-become-Dick-Tracy Ralph Byrd as the main hero, with standard issue girlfriend (Jean Norman) and comic relief sidekick (Lee Ford). The movie also has a nice turn from Richard Alexander as Lugosi’s giant mute henchman, and he is the most memorable character other than Lugosi himself. All in all, this one is pretty good, but sometimes I wonder if I should have reviewed serials one episode at a time; at least one of the episodes of this one (either the 8th or 9th; I can’t quite remember) is truly as thrilling as I’d always dreamed serials should always be when I was a kid; sadly, when i first saw them as an adult, they rarely lived up to the hype.

M (1951)

M (1951)
Article #1373 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 12-17-2004
Posting Date: 5-16-2005
Directed by Joseph Losey
Featuring David Wayne, Howard Da Silva, Martin Gabel

A child killer is loose in the streets of L.A., and the police seem unable to catch him. When they try to compensate for this failure by making constant raids on the criminal underworld, one of the bigwigs of the latter decides to catch the murderer himself.

You remake a great movie at your own risk. It can also be a catch-22 situation; if you stray from the original story you’ll be criticized, but if you stick to it closely, you’ll be constantly reminding people of the earlier movie and inviting direct comparison. This being said, I feel that this is a good remake of the movie. It does a strong job of updating the time and place to contemporary L.A.. David Wayne does a fine job at playing the child murderer. The movie is also efficiently told in 88 minutes, somewhat shorter than the original.

However, it sticks too closely to the original movie for its own good. This version may be good, but the original was brilliant. Joseph Losey and David Wayne have their strengths, but they’re not Fritz Lang and Peter Lorre. None of the secondary characters here are as memorable as the ones in the original. And most of all, the wit and humor that permeated the original movie are mostly gone here, and what elements of it that do remain are copied from the original movie. There are a few changes to the story here; the killer has an obsession with shoes, when he is trapped inside the building he has a child with him, he’s more blatantly crazy, and the movie develops a relationship between the head criminal and the drunken lawyer that leads to a slightly different (and slightly less satisfying) ending. But ultimately, this version never quite takes on a life of its own, and it makes me wish I was watching the brilliant original movie instead. In short, the remake feels unnecessary. But that’s the risk of doing a remake in the first place.

The Lost Zeppelin (1929)

Article #1372 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 12-16-2004
Posting Date: 5-15-2005
Directed by Edward Sloman
Featuring Conway Tearle, Virginia Valli, Ricardo Cortez

Two men in love with the same woman leave together on a zeppelin en route to the south pole.

Fantastic content: The zeppelin trip to the south pole makes the movie at least marginally science fiction.

Back in my college days, I agreed to take a part in a radio play about a detective, and I ended up with the lead role. After the first read-through, one problem became alarmingly clear; the script was not long enough to fill the thirty-minute slot set aside for it. The director decided that the best way to deal with this problem was for everyone (especially me) to talk much slower. I did, and ended up giving one of the worst performances of my life.

To get to the point, the way I feel about my performance in this radio play is the way I feel about most of the very early talkies; I find them almost unwatchable, but it isn’t quite their fault. Because of the technical restrictions of trying to incorporate the technical innovation of sound, much of the dramatic content was badly compromised. The opening twenty-five minutes of this movie suffers from the fact that it is both talky and cliched, and the huge gaps between cues were both technically necessary and dramatically disastrous, as the pace slows to a crawl.

The movie improves immensely once we get to the zeppelin flight, largely because the special effects are excellent. However, every time it becomes necessary to turn to conversation to advance the plot, we are forced to leave the environs of the zeppelin (it’s droning sound would drown out any conversation) and must go back to civilization where we can watch people sitting around and listening to plot developments over the radio, and this gets tiresome quickly. As it is, if it weren’t for the special effects, I would find this movie almost unwatchable.

Still, I don’t want to be too hard on the movie; I have this problem with all the talkies from this era. Had it been made a few years later when the sound technology and the techniques been better developed, it would have flowed a lot better. Therefore, I feel more inclined to take my hat off to those who pioneered the early sound movies; whatever their flaws, they were taking the necessary steps to perfect the new technology. I applaud the effort, even if I find the results difficult to watch.

The Ghost Walks (1934)

Article #1371 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 12-15-2004
Posting Date: 5-14-2005
Directed by Frank R. Strayer
Featuring John Miljan, June Collyer, Richard Carle

An aspiring playwright, a broadway producer and his superciliious assistant all become stranded at an old dark house where a ghost is believed to be active.

As if you couldn’t guess from the plot description, we’re back squarely in the “old dark house” genre of the thirties. This one isn’t too bad, though it relies a little too much on the comic antics of Richard Carle and Johnny Arthur, who are mildly amusing at first but can’t quite hold your interest for the length of the movie. Still, it does have a great gimmick that comes into play thirty minutes into the movie; I won’t give it away here, but it’s similar to the one used in the silent movie LAUGHING AT DANGER. It also has a memorable psycho popping up near the end of the movie, though he’s dispatched a little too easily for my tastes. Other than that, it’s business as usual.

Lost Horizon (1937)

Article #1370 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 12-14-2004
Posting Date: 5-13-2005
Directed by Frank Capra
Featuring Ronald Colman, Jane Wyatt, Edward Everett Horton

Several people escaping from a violent revolution in China find that their plane has been shanghaied and that they are being taken in the wrong direction. They end up stranded in an isolated area in the mountains of Tibet, and there they discover the utopia of Shangri-La.

In some ways this is one of the more offbeat entries in the Capra oeuvre, but it’s generally ranked with his best work. I like it well enough, but I don’t quite place it in the top tier of his works. He does an excellent job with the somewhat protracted beginning of the movie; I’ve always loved his use of crowds, and the opening scenes in China are exciting and fun to watch. I also enjoy the last part of the movie where Ronald Colman, John Howard and Margo leave Shangri-La to return to the outside world. It’s the actual visit to Shangri-La that gets a little dull, and I think it’s simply because utopias tend to be somewhat uninteresting on a dramatic level; that’s why not many movies are made about them. Still, the movie is packed with fine performances. In particular, Ronald Colman does a wonderful job as the man who has found the world of his dreams, and both H. B. Warner and Sam Jaffe are great as Chang and the High Lama respectively. Able support is also given by Edward Everett Horton and Thomas Mitchell, who are both initially resistant to the charms of Shangri-La, but who soon find it to be the best place for them. I also find it very interesting that the adventures of Ronald Colman after his escape from Shangri-La are told to us in story by a man at a club rather than shown to us, but I think this is very effective; it completes the transition of turning a character who we’ve come to know very well into something of a legend, and it’s fitting that his becoming a legend makes his return to Shangri-La (a legendary place itself) all the more appropriate.