Black Camel: Chuck Chan in 1931!

DATELINE: Lost Gem

actor legends

 Lugosi with Oland.

One of the first of the Warner Oland Charlie Chan movies is a beautifully restored print from 1931. It has other surprises too. It was filmed on location in Charlie Chan’s home base of Honolulu and uses the scenery to great effect. It is cryptically called The Black Camel.

Fresh off the horror of the year, Dracula, you have two cast members in fine fettle:  Dwight Frye and Bela Lugosi. They play a respective butler and a questionable psychic, all too willing to help Chan.

Lugosi and Frye were scheduled to make James Whale’s Frankenstein after this picture, but when Whale saw this, he thought Bela Lugosi would be too scary for the monster. The part went to Karloff instead.

The film does not hide some white tourist prejudice, compounded because the detective is both Chinese and a policeman. And, the cast of extras includes many Hawaiians.

The dark metaphor of the Black Camel has something to do with kneeling Death coming a-calling. It is one of many little aphorisms that Charlie Chan spouts dryly.

Instead of an irritating older son, this film features an inept young assistant to Chan. We do see Charlie’s family at a large dinner table in one scene, but the cheap sets and low budget formula would come in the next few films.

Warner Oland is masterful, as always, and it is quite a mangled English that we hear from both Oland and Lugosi in their conversations, that are quite witty and delightful.

There are a half-dozen quite credible suspects, and they are indeed all gathered in the drawing room (and dining room) for the big reveal.

This wonderful early mystery is a surprise and delight on every level.

 

 

 

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Winter Kills an Assassination Plot

DATELINE:  Not Citizen Kane

Taylor as Madam Hollywood Miss Taylor, We Presume?

Richard Condon’s novel called Winter Kills, a roman a clef of the Kennedy Assassination, makes for one of the earliest of conspiracy theory movies. Winter Kills is by the man who wrote the Manchurian Candidate and Prizzi’s Honor.

Vincent Canby of the NY Times called it equal to Citizen Kane, but that seems a stretch. It is more akin to Oliver Stone’s JFK.

A stunning cast of cameos appear and disappear quickly. The opening credits are about as jaw-dropping as Murder on the Orient Express:  Jeff Bridges, John Huston, Anthony Perkins, Dorothy Malone, Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Boone, Eli Wallach, and on and on.

How could it go wrong? Well, you can start by scratching your head over the notion that movie is billed as a tragic comedy.

The Kennedy murder in 1963 may be a comedy of errors in its commission and solution, but hardly a comedy.

The film takes the off-putting hints of conspiracy and gives them fake names:  Joe Diamond for Jack Ruby, etc.

Jeff Bridges is the young man (at his most attractive in 1979) who is the brother of an assassinated president who decides to solve the crime himself. In the meantime, conspirators are killing everyone around him. His attitude is bizarre, like someone has strung together unrelated scenes (blame goes to the director).

John Huston gives another irascible performance as the President’s father and Dorothy Malone is his mother.

The film predates the Internet but makes some intriguing theories that a master-programmed spy network of computers is following everyone as early as 1960. It is a stunning prediction on today’s world. That alone is gripping and clairvoyant.

All the usual suspects are present: Hollywood moguls, billionaires, crackpot businessmen, mobsters, Cubans, political hacks, the CIA, and on and on. We know the drill by now, but back in 1980, this was shocking. With more evidence now available, the theories here are standard conclusions today.

As for the movie, it is over-the-top and worth your attention. Not Citizen Kane, it is equal to Stone’s JFK.

 

 

 

 

 

Geriatric Death Wish

DATELINE: Don’t Call Him Dirty Harry!

what's it all about, Alfie?  Dirty Alfie?

When you take a premise to the British producers, you will have something better than the original American version.

So, when someone floated the idea of a British vigilante going after bad guys that the police cannot catch, you end up with Harry Brown, outdoing Charles Bronson or Bruce Willis in Death Wish.

This thriller is about an octogenarian who takes on teenage hoodlums single-handedly. Now, there are a raft of British movie stars who could come out of retirement to play such a role (Sean Connery, Albert Finney, Tom Courtney, etc.). However, this one is delightful because the man of the gun is a version of Dirty Harry, Michael Caine.

As far as the teenage bad guys, they seem motiveless and simply evil for their own pleasure, which could likely be true enough.

Michael Caine is driven to draw on his heroic soldier roots from Belfast’s conflicts. He notes that the enemy in that British conflict actually stood for something they believed in. These drug-infested youth are just nasty for their own sake.

You throw in some highly inept British police that are typified by Emily Mortimer as an all-business detective, and you have the need for an aging hero to try to chase kids down the mean streets.

Caine’s righteous anger simmers and you believe this retired gentleman can draw upon something from his past when he goes rogue. We need to see a tough guy without mercy who is 80.

Obviously, the world of movies and the old stars still has a draw—and the aging boomer generation still loves its Alfie and 60s spy. We know what it’s all about: showing that age has not slowed down heroic feelings.

Palace of Silents, Off Sunset Boulevard

DATELINE: Silence Please!

silent movie theatre

We thought Palace of Silents would be some nostalgic look at a movie house that shows only silent movies since the early 1940s. You know, slightly wacky, obsessive people with good intentions.

Little did we know we were about to enter Sunset Boulevard where Los Angelinos are all Norma Desmond.

You have to love a movie that offers you a surprise or two.

Around the start of World War II, a conscientious objector named Hampton and his wife built their own tiny theatre with a small apartment above. Here they planned to show his grand collection of silent movies to an ever-decreasing and disinterested public.

Not exactly a popular activity, he was a pioneer in film restoration, finding the best prints and splicing them together in his home lab. If a half-dozen people came by, it was enough for forty years.

A friend named Lawrence Austin horned in on the widow, pulling a snow job on her and taking over the property. Lawrence Austin was a Hollywood fraud, telling lies and embezzling to beat the band. However, he refurbished the theatre and continued its mission. Silent Movie Theatre continued, perhaps even flourished with riding the coattails of Buster Keaton revivals.

Austin’s dubious and secretive past (he was a closet gay and may have used the old theatre for shows not on the screen). Eventually, he had a laundry list of enemies, including ex-cons.

He was murdered one night in the theatre as it was about to show Murnau’s Sunrise. A minor scandal in Hollywood, it was quickly solved, and the theatre was saved again by a vaudevillian mentality who knew little about silent movies.

Yet, the story of the grand old movie house transcends scandal, sordid lives, and misuse of its charm. The movie may pleasantly surprise you.

 

 

Aaron Hernandez Back in the News

DATELINE: Out, Out, Damned Spot!

A1 steak

While Tom Brady and the New England Patriots pulled another game out of the hopper in the last second, the news was not all good. The Boston Globe featured an interview with another gay lover of the late Aaron Hernandez.

Yes, the paramours of alleged and former murdering tight end of the Patriots are coming out of the woodwork. Had he not been indicted for multiple murders, Aaron Hernandez might have been on the receiving end of Tom Brady’s passes this past night, instead of Gronk and Julian Edelman.

Instead, we are treated to more salacious details of his affair with his high school sweetheart, the quarterback of the Bristol, Connecticut, football team. Aaron had a thing for QBs, which explains his trips to California to train with Tom Brady years ago.

Of course, nowadays, Tom has no memory of the name Hernandez and never breathes it in polite company or even to the media.

Several years ago, during the trials of Hernandez, we were a lone voice in the wilderness, pointing out that the police covered up the gay angle to the crimes—believing it did not serve the public to hear it.

And, of course, the prosecutors declined to go into the gay motive in the murders because they thought the public would never find an NFL player capable of being homoerotic behavior, let alone homicidal behavior.

If you want to read the dirt, unvarnished and uncovered, go to the either the print or ebook entitled The Strange Case of Aaron Hernandez, available on Amazon.

 

 

Tinker, Tailor, Puzzle-maker

DATELINE: Cold Warriors

Hardy boy

 Hunky Hardy Boy!

If you want to be challenged by John LeCarre’s masterpiece of espionage during the Cold War, you might well take in the movie version of George Smiley’s hard work in finding a mole that caused the death of Control in the British secret service.

One kingfish at the agency seems to have a direct connection to the Kremlin. Though Smiley (Gary Oldman) has been forced out into retirement with his mentor, Control (John Hurt), he must work covertly to restore the integrity of the Circus.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is for those who enjoy armchair psychology and thought-provoking shades of gray.

Through complex flashbacks, and even more complex human relationships, you will find these are not pleasant men. The cast is stellar beyond compare: Toby Jones, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ciaran Hinds, Tom Hardy, are stand-outs.

The sexual peccadilloes are unspoken, but there is a strong scent of blackmail and unspoken ties among the men. It is nearly as much a guessing game about their bedtime bedmates as it is about their political bedmates.

The complexity and subtlety of the film probably makes it beyond the tolerance level of your standard James Bond satire fans. This is the low-key, grubby, office worker mentality of the Cold War. Oldman is particularly wooden to hide his tormented feelings.

Every spy ought to be brought in from this Cold War before their tedious work drives them to distraction.

Oldman plays much older, and the young men (Hardy and Cumberbatch) had better days ahead as superstars. They could not be more stunningly attractive in 2011 and quickly made a mark with this film.

 

Sherlock v. Conan Doyle: Battle Royale

DATELINE: Who Hates Sherlock Holmes? The Author

doyle

If ever there was a legendary love/hate relationship, it was between Sherlock Holmes and the man who was his spiritual father and creator, Arthur Conan Doyle.

In a French documentary called Sherlock Holmes Against Conan Doyle, we have a battle on the order of a duel with the Napoleon of Crime and the Actors Who Took Him On.

Meant to be a money-making enterprise and a throwaway for a couple of stories, Holmes turned into Doyle’s Frankenstein Monster.

A marvelous and entertaining documentary gives us a blow-by-blow description of Doyle’s losing war with his temperamental genius/consulting detective.

You know who will win this fight. Holmes has survived with hundreds of movies and TV shows, depicted by a variety of actors with waspy disdain—from Rathbone to Jeremy Brett, to the modern versions like Cumberbatch. Thankfully, we never see Robert Downey in the role.

The little hour is chock full of clips of these Sherlocks making annotations on Conan Doyle, a man of some adventure and style himself. Often thought as a Watson type, Doyle was actually more of a Professor Challenger sort.

Killing Holmes was frowned upon even by Doyle’s mother, and money is the great resurrection device. After ten years, Doyle was forced to bring him back from the dead.

Based on an old professor who used to wow the med students with his erudition, Holmes was a clever creation who was enhanced by his narrative fellow, long-suffering and frequent punching bag named Dr. John H. Watson.

If you want to see fleeting glimpses of many classic Holmes portrayals, and rare clips of Doyle, you may enjoy the time, though it covers familiar territory.

 

The Wilder Sherlock

DATELINE:  Sherlock Takes a Bath!

 Stephens & Blakely

When master auteur Billy Wilder (who gave us gems like Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot, One Two Three) gives us his take on Sherlock Holmes, we are ready for something unusual. So, we overly anticipated watching his film The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.

All that promise seems to go up in a cocaine dream as an overlong movie that could be half-an-hour shorter and more succinct, maintaining the early humor.

Wilder puts all your standard Holmes patter into the pot (Mrs. Hudson, Mycroft, and irritation with Dr. Watson’s stories). That stuff is quite amusing.

The first third of the film is filled with the kind of humor you expect from Wilder—sophisticated, sharp, and delightful. He raises the ugly specter that Holmes and Watson are consenting adults—and he makes more comprehensible, Holmes turning to his seven-percent solution.

Funny bits with the Russian ballet, and boring cases about midgets, make us think we are entering a funnier world than Conan Doyle envisioned.

Colin Blakely is a delightful Dr. Watson, and Robert Stephens protests too much about being a woman-hating fop. He plays Holmes with a tad flamboyance, disdaining deerstalker hats and women equally. He is more than a fop. We are almost in panty-waist territory.

Christopher Lee is around as a more peripatetic Mycroft, showing up in places other than the Diogenes.

Wilder cannot throw away a line. Midgets come back to haunt us, after one bad joke. And having Queen Victoria seem to resemble a Munchkin is over the top and under the height limit for small talk.

Throw in the Loch Ness monster of sorts, and you have something that would later be taken as gospel by the Robert Downey school of Sherlock acting and writing.

We wished the Private Life of Sherlock could have been taken for better, not for worse. We remain loyal in sickness and health, good and bad.

 

 

Trump’s Deadly Numbers Game

DATELINE: Serial Tweeter?

 glow in dark pee pot

President Bone Spurs Trump, Liar Emeritus, and ace wriggler out of any blame, now contends that 2975 people did not die in Puerto Rico from two hurricane rescue missions his Administration completely mismanaged.

Let them drink those bottled waters sitting on pallets, never distributed to thirsty Americans.

In his prevaricating way, T-Rump contends that Democrats (not even the fake media this time) have inflated the death figures to make him look bad.

He doesn’t need anyone to make him look bad. He does it all by himself.

If his Mad Hatter attitude strikes you as appalling, you number among the 60% of the country who disapprove of this horse’s rear end sitting on his rear end in the White House.

He rises up only to golf and charge taxpayers with the cartload of Secret Service who must follow him hole to hole to the tune of $300,000.

The minority of racists and white supremacists who believe the island of Puerto Rico is a foreign country, not an American territory inhabited by American citizens, support Trump’s new math calculations.

In fact, when you boil it down in history, with the anniversary of terror attack on 9/11 only a few days past, you have 2996 Americans killed by two planes driven off course by terrorists. Mr. Bone Spurs, the artful draft dodger, falls merely 20 fewer dead among his derelict presidency with twin hurricanes he ignored.

Trump has killed 2975 Americans in two hurricanes that he allowed to fester without assisting the suffering.

There is something delusional about a cretin sitting in power. More reasonable people now await the day that lends itself to men with nets in white coats coming to the White House to cart him off.

Throw him some bottled water on the way out. It cannot come soon enough.

 

 

Out of Time and Out of Clues

DATELINE: Dean Cain & Denzel Back in 2003

Dean & Denzel

Like Bruce Willis, for twenty years or more, Denzel Washington has showed a knack for picking interesting films and character roles. One of these is called Out of Time, a hackneyed suspense drama.

In 2003, he tried his luck as a semi-corrupt small-town sheriff in the Florida Keys. The film has all the workings of film noir in the 1940s that Robert Mitchum could have played.

Denzel is an anchor among some flashy performers, and the opening wit is entertaining before it devolves into a mystery muddier than anything Raymond Chandler could dredge up.

You will enjoy seeing Sanaa Lathan and Dean Cain as a couple of reprobates, but their general dubious crime associations are masked by their attractiveness. The first-half fun is replaced by a phony suspense device in the second half.

Eva Mendes as Denzel’s ex-wife and John Billingsley as his slob of a medical examiner are worth having their own pictures. Sanaa Lathan and Eva play ping-pong with Denzel’s balls.

Plot holes start to do in the viewer as the complications become less amusing and more ridiculous. It seems Denzel’s sheriff is a dope (self-admitted by film’s end) and must work to extricate himself from a set-up that, for unknown reasons, makes him a fall-guy.

Since he is a charmer and likeable, we figure that drug dealers have it in for him. We might be wrong, as usual. However, clever clues are not forthcoming to help armchair detectives figure out the thriller mystery. Yet, Dean Cain and Denzel are at the peak of their youthful good looks in this one, and they are highly watchable.

All your natural action ingredients are tossed in, and there is a time handicap that never really becomes a deadline of importance. The suspense is botched.

Yet, for Denzel’s fans, it is another masterful performance in a well-produced movie. For the rest of us, it’s a ho-hummer, beating the clock for an hour.

 

Two Mrs. Carrolls Lacks Noir

 DATELINE: Oldie May Not Be Goodie

  Stanwyk & Bogart Great Stars! Abysmal Script!

Back in the late 1940s, it was tough to find leading ladies who were strong enough to stand up to Humphrey Bogart. Usually producers fell back on his wife, Lauren Bacall, for a counterpoint.

In a rare miss, Bogart was teamed with one of the big misses of the era.

Big women movie stars on the screen—like Joan Crawford and Bette Davis—did not measure up to the scripts that suited Bogart.

On the other hand, Barbara Stanwyk was also a tough cookie to play against. She was so tough that her leading men came off as Neanderthal, if not pussycats. Gary Cooper was a regular costar, and after that, you were facing weaker characters (played by Fred MacMurray or Ronald Reagan, or the nice guys like Bill Holden).

After Sorry, Wrong Number, she took on more nasty victims, and so we come to teaming Bogart and Stanwyk, almost deserving of each other in the dull-witted murder-thriller The Two Mrs. Carrolls. Stanwyk is hysterical on the telephone once again, and rest assured, the rainy Scottish weather means that Bogart will don his obligatory trench-coat and fedora for at least one scene. It isn’t enough.

It was post-World War II and tough-guy actors were stretching into demi-villains. Thus odd-ball film is set in Scotland with an American cast of apparent expatriates. Nigel Bruce (Dr. Watson) is on hand as a dotty doctor for Stanwyk as she is poisoned, and Alexis Smith is the new muse for the diabolical painter.

You keep wondering when Sydney Greenstreet will show up to trap Bogart’s bad guy.

As Geoffrey Carroll, Humphrey Bogart loses interest in his latest wife as muse, murders her, and finds another. It is kind of Andrea del Sarto as Bluebeard.

He plays an unconvincing American artist in this one, not a detective, and he seems to have headaches when the word “death” echoes behind him. He exhibits a bunch of the Deadly Sins—including rage, pride, jealousy, among others.

His alleged successful paintings are deplorable.

These are not good signs for Bogie in the last days of noir. They may be worse news for Stanwyk as victim. She is made so demure that the point of putting a strong woman opposite Bogart was lost. Bogart feeds poisoned milk to his wives, like Cary Grant in Suspicion by Hitchcock. It’s that kind of copycat movie.

This British play is devoid of wit, suspense, plot, action, or anything that could be saved by the high-powered actors at the top of their careers. This was not a Warner Brothers film, or it would never have been made like this.

The final few seconds are the high-point when Bogie offers warm milk to the policemen about to take him away. (Oh, it’s laced with that poison).

What a disappointment for the most part.