Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1943)

Article 1872 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 4-30-2006
Posting Date: 9-27-2006
Directed by Roy William Neill
Featuring Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, Lionel Atwill

Sherlock Holmes helps an inventor with a new bomb-sight invention escape to England, but there must contend with the fact that Dr. Moriarty has designs on the inventor and his invention as well.

This is another one of the “Bad-Haircut” Holmes movies; those first few movies after Universal took over the series from Twentieth-Century Fox and moved Holmes into a modern wartime setting; they are marked by heavy use of propaganda and Holmes’ bad haircut. This one is an improvement over the previous one in the series; they eased up on the propaganda quite a bit, the invention gives it a higher level of fantastic content, and Holmes’ haircut is often obscured by the fact that he spends a good deal of the movie in any variety of disguises. It also helps that Lionel Atwill is on hand as Moriarty; he does well, though I prefer either Zucco or Daniell in the role myself. The movie borrows the cipher from the “Adventure of the Dancing Men” story from the Holmes canon, but it does add a few interesting twists to the matter. Watson is even afforded a greater amount of dignity here as well; outside of falling asleep at one point, he proves to be resourceful and helpful to Holmes throughout. Not a bad entry in the series, by any means.

Black Magic (1944)

aka Charlie Chan in Black Magic, Meeting at Midnight
Article 1871 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 4-29-2006
Posting Date: 9-26-2006
Directed by Phil Rosen
Featuring Sidney Toler, Mantan Moreland, Frances Chan

Authorities are baffled when a man dies from a bullet wound at a seance, but no bullet is found and none of the suspects carry guns. Charlie Chan is forced to cancel his trip to Honolulu when his daughter becomes a suspect in the case.

This is another of the Monogram Charlie Chan films, and though it’s fun enough, it pales next to the Twentieth Century Fox series that preceded it. The horror content is fairly noticeable in this one, as the mystery involves a seance, hypnotism, magicians, and Mantan Moreland being convinced that there are spooks in the house. Fans of Moreland in particular should like this one; though most of his gags involve him being scared, his timing is impeccable as usual. It’s interesting to have one of Chan’s daughters appear in this one rather than one of his sons, and, if IMBD is correct, the actress playing Frances Chan is also named Frances Chan, who appeared in only a handful of movies during the early forties. I think the mystery is a little on the weak side, but there is a nice sense of fun at times.

The Return of the Whistler (1948)

Article 1870 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 4-28-2006
Posting Date: 9-25-2006
Directed by D. Ross Lederman
Featuring Michael Duane, Lenore Aubert, Richard Lane

When his prospective bride disappears from a hotel in a small town, a man hooks up with a private detective in an attempt to locate her.

This was the last of the eight films based on the radio character, The Whistler. It’s not bad, mostly because the story (by Cornell Woolrich) is fairly decent, it’s efficiently directed, and fairly well acted. It is, however, devoid of the fantastic content that makes me cover these movies; other than the Whistler himself (who, since he exists more as a narrative device than a character, is extremely marginal to begin with), there is nothing here that puts it in the realm of the fantastic, and there really is no horror mood to speak of. I do somewhat miss the presence of Richard Dix, who appeared in all of the other seven movies in the series, but he had retired from acting by this time, and since he wasn’t playing a continuing character, his presence really wasn’t necessary. The Whistler is used a little clumsily in this one; I don’t mind him appearing at the beginning, and adding his voice to the proceedings at certain points, but having him reappear on the wall each time is just a little corny. Fans of THE BLOB may want to keep their eyes open for Olin Howlin, who appears here as a caretaker of an estate and adds a bit of comic relief to the proceedings.

More Than a Miracle (1967)

aka C’era una volta…
Article 1869 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 4-27-2006
Posting Date: 9-24-2006
Directed by Francesco Rosi
Featuring Sophia Loren, Omar Sharif, Georges Wilson

A willful prince meets and falls in love with a fiery peasant girl, but the path of true love never runs smooth…

Usually I like quirky movies, but I’m afraid that this one does nothing for me. I like some of the touches (a flying monk, an eccentric chef, a miracle involving three thousand eggs, and a dish washing competition), but the movie has a way of making all these touches seem rather pointless. It also doesn’t help that I don’t care much for either of the main characters, even if they’re being played by two very charismatic actors, Sophia Loren and Omar Sharif; the prince in particular comes across as mean-spirited, and I really don’t find myself caring at all whether they get together at the end of the story. The dubbing is fairly decent, but that’s usually the case when a movie seems to be slated more for the art house circuit. I suspect most men will like the dish-washing sequence the best; Sophia Loren certainly knew how to make such a mundane task look incredibly sexy.

Miracles for Sale (1939)

Article 1868 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 4-26-2006
Posting Date: 9-23-2006
Directed by Tod Browning
Featuring Robert Young, Florence Rice, Frank Craven

A magician finds himself drawn into a murder mystery by a beautiful woman, who is somehow tied to a female spiritualist.

This was Tod Browning’s last film. It isn’t bad; the story is rather amusing, and there’s a lively and fun cast at work here. Nevertheless, it is a little on the disappointing side, though it’s a little difficult to say just why. Part of it is that there is a certain incessant cuteness at work here; there are a number of clever fake-outs and tricks here, but there may be too many; after a while, you get the same slightly annoyed sensation you get when a child does an antic that makes you laugh, and then he proceeds to do it again several times in quick succession. Though the mystery does take some very interesting turns, somehow the movie never really builds up much in the way of suspense, an unfortunate side effect to the fact that most of the character are quirky and likable. It’s biggest problem is that it lacks the moodiness you expect from a Browning film; in fact, if I didn’t know he directed it, I would have never guessed it. Still, there is something a little eerie to the fact that both of the murder victims are found lying in those circles drawn on the floor to conjure demons, even if the movie resolutely refuses to go in the direction of supernatural influence. The seance also works up a bit of mood, but it is broken all too quickly. All in all, it’s interesting, but not quite successful.

Jane Eyre (1944)

JANE EYRE (1944)
Article 1867 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 4-25-2006
Posting Date: 9-22-2006
Directed by Robert Stevenson
Featuring Orson Welles, Joan Fontaine, Margaret O’Brien

Jane Eyre, an orphan, after years of suffering and abuse, becomes the governess at Thornfield Hall, a gloomy estate presided over by the imposing Edward Rochester. Jane falls in love with Rochester, but there is a secret hidden behind the locked walls of the estate…

No, JANE EYRE is not a horror movie, but it is not totally out of the question to include it with this series, especially as the story belongs to that genre of moody Gothic romance that was in some ways a precursor to horror. The theme of madness does pop up at one point, and there are plenty of ominous shadows and some swirling ground fog to add further to the atmosphere. Furthermore, it’s pretty hard not to get a strong sense of horror during the scene where Jane swabs the blood from the chest of an injured visitor while an unseen and malevolent presence rattles a nearby door. The movie itself is excellent, with fine performances from all. It’s almost hard to pick favorites among the actors, but you won’t soon forget Orson Welles, Joan Fontaine, Henry Daniell, or Agnes Moorehead in their respective roles. The opening of the movie is pretty Dickensian, with Jane being shunted off by an aunt to to the cruel harshness of a charity school. Which brings up one of those “lesser of two evils” types of question: If you were a child, who would you rather have watch over you, Agnes Moorehead or Henry Daniell? Now, if that isn’t a scary choice…

Animal Farm (1954)

Article 1866 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 4-24-2006
Posting Date: 9-21-2006
Directed by Joy Batchelor and John Halas
Featuring the voices of Gordon Heath and Maurice Denham

After suffering abuse and neglect from their owner, the animals of a farm stage a revolution and take over the place. They try to organize a better and more fair society, but one ambitious pig named Napolean has other ideas…

I can’t tell you how glad I am that Disney didn’t get the rights to do this one and make a lovable musical version of it. This one retains a good deal of the dark and tragic mood of the allegorical fable, and even though there are touches of whimsy and humor (it’s hard to have a group of animals undertake normally human tasks without getting a little whimsy and humor into it), these touches never overwhelm the story. It’s been years since I’ve read the book, but I do remember the gradual erosion of the laws written on the side of the barn, and that is here in full force. I also remember the final line of the book, which is here given a visual twist near the end of the movie. However, unless my memory of the book is faulty, the movie does try to come up with a more hopeful ending, but given the “Look at the new boss, same as the old boss” nature of the story, it’s really not that hopeful; the main question is who will be the new pigs. Because of its grimness, this one isn’t really appropriate for children, and the fate of Boxer the horse is definitely a traumatic and memorable sequence. All in all, despite any flaws, I think the movie does justice to the book, which I just may reread in the near future.