30 Days of Noir #11: Wicked Woman (dir by Russell Rouse)

The 1953 film noir, Wicked Woman, opens with a bus coming to a stop in a small town in the middle of nowhere.

Getting off the bus is Billie Nash (Beverly Michaels).  From the minute she starts walking through the town, it’s obvious that Billie may not have a home and she may not have a lot of money but what she does have is total and complete confidence in herself.  Nobody tells Billie Nash what to do!  When she movies into a boarding house (the rent is $6 a week!), she’s leered at by her new neighbor, the diminutive Charlie Borg (Percy Helton, a character actor who will be familiar to anyone who has ever spent a week bingeing on TCM.)

It turns out to be a rather low-rent boarding house.  The landlady may be found of shouting, “I run a respectable place!” but nothing about this location seems to support that claim.  Billie has one room to herself.  The bathroom is down the hall.  A pay phone sits in the hallway.  Billie actually has to spend money to make a phone call.  Fortunately, Charlie Borg is always around and willing to loan her money.  In fact, when Billie says that she needs twenty dollars to buy a new outfit, Charlie hands it over and asks Billie to thank him by going out to dinner with him sometime.  Even though she has no intention of ever spending any lengthy amount of time with Charlie, Billie says sure.  Money is money.  You do what you have to do.

(Myself, I’d just like to live in a time when it only cost $20 to buy a new outfit.)

Once Billie finally manages to get Charlie to stop bugging her, she goes down to the local bar and applies for a job.  It’s not much of a bar but, again, money is money.  The bar is owned by Dora Bannister (Evelyn Scott), an alcoholic who asks Billie if she’s sure that she can the bar’s “rough crowd.”  Billie assures her that there’s no one so rough that she can’t handle and, as played by Beverly Michaels, you never doubt that she’s telling the truth.

Soon, Billie is flirting with the bar’s handsome bartender, Matt (Richard Egan).  Matt is ambitious and hard-working and, after just a few nights, he’s absolutely crazy about Billie.  The only problem is that Matt is not only married but he’s married to Dora!  That doesn’t matter to Billie.  In fact, she’s even come up with a scheme to steal not only Matt but also the bar from Dora.

Unfortunately, for Billie, the walls at the boarding house are extremely thin and Charlie overhears her and Matt scheming.  It turns out that Charlie’s not quite as clueless as he seems and soon, he’s blackmailing Billie.  He really wants that date….

Wicked Woman is a wonderfully sordid, low-budget film noir, one that features just a little bit of everything.  Adultery, blackmail, sex, addiction …. it’s all here and it’s impossible not to be entertained by the film’s over-the-top melodrama.  While both Richard Egan and Percy Helton are memorable as the two men in her life, the film is pretty much stolen by Beverly Michaels.  Whether coolly glaring at Charlie or giving a little smile after having done something particularly manipulative, there’s rarely a time that Billie isn’t in complete control of her destiny.  Beverly Michaels is a force of nature in this film and she turns “wicked” into a compliment.

An Olympic Film Review: Downhill Racer (dir by Michael Ritchie)

For the past few days, like all good people, I have been totally obsessed with the Winter Olympics!  Last week, I asked my friends to suggest some Winter Olympic-themed movies that I could watch and review.  More than a few of them immediately recommended that I check out a film called Downhill Racer.

First released in 1969, Downhill Racer tells the story of David Chappellet (a very young and very handsome Robert Redford).  When we first meet David, he’s just arrived in Switzerland.  An alternate to the U.S. ski team, David has been summoned by Coach Eugene Claire (Gene Hackman) to replace an injured skier.  From the minute that David arrives, it’s obvious that he’s not interested in being anyone’s friend.  He’s upset that he was an alternate.  He’s upset that he’s going to be skiing so late in the competition.  He’s upset about … well, almost everything.  Unlike the rest of his teammates, he’s a loner and he rarely has much to say.  He cares about one thing: winning championships and being recognized as the best.  David is not a particularly likable character.  However, the fact that he doesn’t seem to care what anyone thinks about him is one of the things that makes him compelling.  Add to that, David quickly proves himself to be one of the best.  He may be arrogant but, more often than not, he can back up his pride.

Why is David so driven?  We get some clues when David returns to his hometown in Idaho.  Even though everyone in the town knows him and he doesn’t have any trouble convincing a former girlfriend to go off with him, David still seems out-of-place.  When he visits his father, the taciturn man is not impressed by David’s success.  As his father puts it, the world is full of champions.  Why should David deserve any more praise than anyone else?

Standing in contrast to the reservered David is Coach Claire.  Whereas David is reserved, Claire is passionate.  Whereas David is an unapologetic loner, Claire is willing to fight for every member of his team.  Whereas David reacts to a crash by refusing to accept that he made a mistake, Coach Claire is always brutally honest.  David couldn’t be a champion without Claire’s help but, in the end, the Coach is destined to remain in the background while David signs lucrative sponsorship deals and becomes a hero to television viewers everywhere.

It’s a familiar story, though perhaps it wasn’t as familiar in 1969 as it is today.  Today, we’ve grown accustomed to the idea that celebrities can be jerks and that “heroes” are often just manufactured idols.  (Downhill Racer has a good deal of fun with the shallowness of the media’s coverage of David Chappellett’s career.)  That said, familiar or not, there’s a good deal of authenticity to be found in the performances of both Redford and Hackman.  It takes a bit of courage to play a character who is as narcissistic and arrogant as David Chappellett but, even more so, it takes talent to make that character compelling.  As for Hackman, he’s the ideal coach.  He knows both how to get the best out of Chappellett but also when to call him out on his crap.  From the minute we meet the Coach, we knows that he cares but we also know that he’s seen a lot of David Chappelletts come and go over the years.

Of course, the main reason to watch Downhill Racer is because of the racing scenes, many of which were filmed as a point-of-view shot, putting you in the skis as the frozen landscape flies past you.  They are amazing to watch.  I’ve never been skiing, which is probably a good thing when you consider that I’m a bit accident-prone.  But the skiing sequences in Downhill Racer left me breathless, shaken, and exhilarated.

Downhill Racer is definitely one to watch, during the Olympics or any other time.

Horror on the Lens: The House That Would Not Die (dir by John Llewellyn Moxey)

Today’s horror on the lens is a 1970 made-for-TV movie called The House That Would Not Die!

In this film, Barbara Stanwyck and Kitty Winn move into a colonial house that is rumored to be haunted!  Seances, possession, and scandal follows!  There’s time travel, slow mo, an exaggerated wind effects!  It’s all kinda silly but kinda fun too.


Embracing the Melodrama #16: A Summer Place (dir by Delmer Daves)

A Summer Place

Judging from the films I’ve seen from the decade, the 50s were a time when everyone was obsessed with sex but nobody felt comfortable talking about it.  Boys were, of course, allowed to do whatever they wanted, as long as they kept their hair perfectly straight and went out for a school team or two.  Girls, meanwhile, were divided into “good girls” and “bad girls.”  The most important thing in the world was to remain a good girl and to understand that the bad girls really weren’t having as much fun as they appeared to be having.  As for adults, their lives apparently revolved around sheltering their daughters and encouraging their sons to go get laid.  Now, to be honest, the culture really hasn’t changed that much.  I guess what distinguished 50s hypocrisy from the hypocrisy of today is that people in the 50s were apparently so much more sincere about that hypocrisy.

Case in point: 1959’s A Summer Place.  A Summer Place is one of those films where everyone is obsessed with sex but nobody can ever come right out and admit it.  It’s a film where people seem to exclusively speak in the language of euphemism.  It’s a film, about sex, in which you never see anyone actually having sex though, of course, there is an unplanned pregnancy towards the end of it.  That was the 50s for you.  Have sex outside of marriage once and you’re pretty much guaranteed to get knocked up.  You just better hope that the father is played by Troy Donahue.

(Has ever an actor has a more appropriate name than Troy Donahue?  The name itself just resonates a certain handsome blandness.)

In A Summer Place, Troy Donahue plays all-American boy Johnny Hunter.  Johnny’s father (played by Arthur Kennedy) is an alcoholic.  Johnny’s mother, Sylvia (Dorothy McGuire), is frustrated with her perpetually drunk husband and spends her days dreaming of a lifeguard that she once knew.  The Hunters own an inn, located on beautiful Pine Island off the coast of Maine.

One summer, Ken (Richard Egan) and his cold wife Helen (Constance Ford) come to stay at the inn.  Accompanying them is their teenage daughter, Molly (Sandra Dee).  Helen insists on trying to control every aspect of Molly’s life.  Ken, on the other hand, takes a much more relaxed attitude towards his daughter.  When Molly complains that Helen forces her to wear a bra and a girdle, Ken grabs his daughter’s underwear and tosses it all into the ocean.

(Uhmmm …. yeah, that’s more than a little creepy…)

Molly meets Johnny and, despite the fact that the stiff Troy Donahue generates absolutely zero romantic  sparks, the two of them soon fall in love. (It probably has something to do with the Theme From A Summer Place, a hypnotic piece of music that plays on the soundtrack whenever the two of them so much as even glance in each other’s direction.)  Helen, however, doesn’t want Molly to have anything to do with Johnny.  When Molly and Johnny spend a day stranded on an island together, Helen forcefully checks to make sure that Molly’s virginity is still intact while Molly repeatedly shouts, “I WANT MY FADDAH!  I WANT MY  FADDAH!”

However, her father is not there because he’s too busy having an affair of his own.  It turns out that Ken is the former lifeguard who Sylvia Hunter once loved…

And through all of the complications and the melodrama (and believe me, there’s a lot), the Theme From A Summer Place keeps on playing in the background.

Apparently, A Summer Place was considered to be incredibly risqué back in 1959.  Watched today, it all seems to be rather quaint and, in its way, oddly likable.  It’s not necessarily a good film but it’s an agreeable enough offering if you’re looking to waste two hours with whatever happens to be on TCM.  As opposed to some of the other regular directors of 50s melodrama —  like Douglas Sirk and Nicholas Ray — director Delmer Daves made films where the only subtext was unintentional.   As a result of Daves’s direction and Donahue’s “nice young man” blandness, A Summer Place is a pleasant film that never quite becomes a memorable one.

Still, just try to get that music out of your head…

a summer place, sandra dee, troy donahue


A Psychedelic Quickie With Lisa Marie: The Big Cube (dir by Tito Davison)

I recently discovered that I have about 66 movies recorded on my DVR.  A few of these, like Bend it Like Beckham and Thirteen, are films that I always make it a point to watch whenever they show up on television.  But the majority of them are movies that I just happened to spot while going through the guide and I thought they looked intriguing.  These are movies that I have not been in any hurry to watch but, at the same time, I’m still glad to know that they’re waiting for me whenever I do feel like watching them.

Well, that time has come.  In the month of February, TCM is going to be showing a lot of old Oscar nominees which means that I need to make some space on the DVR.  For the past week, I’ve been going through all of my recorded films and watching them.  While many of them turned out to be rather forgettable, I’ve also come across quite a few that, regardless of quality, made me happy I had taken the time to set them to be recorded.

Case in point: The Big Cube.

What makes The Big Cube such a memorable film?

Four words: Lana.  Turner.  On.  Acid.

The Big Cube was first released in 1969, a fact that’s obvious during every minute of the film.  Lana Turner plays Adriana Roman, a famous stage actress who, following the final performance of a hilariously (and unintentionally) bad play, announces that she is retiring from the theatre so that she might marry the fabulously wealthy Charles Winthrop (Dan O’Herlihy).

Charles has a daughter, a spoiled brat named — wait for it — Lisa (Karin Mossberg).  Interestingly enough, despite the fact that Charles speaks with a pronounced Irish accent, Lisa speaks with a thick Swedish accent that makes the majority of her dialogue almost impossible to understand.  (Adding to the film’s general strangeness is that all of Mossberg’s dialogue is dubbed, which makes you wonder why the film’s producers didn’t, at the very least, hire a voice-over actress who could have at least sounded somewhat believable as Charles’s daughter.)  Lisa is resentful of Adriana, viewing her as competition for both her father’s affection and his money.

Since this movie was made in 1969, Lisa also spends all of her time hanging out with hippies who, in this film, are presented as being the equivalent of pure evil.  They hang out at a “hip” nightclub known as Le Dream where they spend their time secretly slipping sugar cubes laced with LSD into the drinks of strangers.  Or, as one random hippy puts it, “I’m going to cube that mother!”

The source of all of this LSD is Johnny (George Chakiris), a medical student who ends up dating Lisa and conspiring to drive her stepmother insane.  Each night, they secretly slip Adriana LSD, which leads to Lana Turner bugging out her eyes while multi-colored spiral graphs appear on the walls around her.  (And again, we’re reminded that this film was made in 1969, when all you needed to do to let the audience know someone was having a bad trip was to make excessive use of a zoom lens and color filters.)

Eventually, all of this leads to Adriana being struck with amnesia.  How can her mind be fixed?  Could the solution possibly be for Adriana’s playwright friend (Richard Egan) to write a play that reveals the conspiracy against Adriana and then to cast Adriana in the lead role?  And is it possible that along with restoring Adriana’s mind, this play will also allow her to return to the stage and discover that Egan is secretly in love with her?

The Big Cube deserves to be seen just because it’s such a weird and over-the-top film but, beyond that, it’s fascinating as a piece of history.  In 1969, mainstream Hollywood filmmakers were still struggling to figure out how to deal with the counterculture and, even more importantly, how to continue to appeal to young filmgoers who no longer had much in common with the establishment.  The end result were a collection of films that either tried desperately and earnestly to prove that, despite all appearances to contrary, the Hollywood studios really did understand and sympathize with the disaffected youth of America or films like The Big Cube in which old school movie stars like Lana Turner were menaced by long-haired men and amoral girl in miniskirts.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the evil hippy films are a lot more fun than the good hippy films and, as far as evil hippy films are concerned, The Big Cube is one of the more entertaining, even if most of the film’s pleasures are unintentional.  Not only do you get to watch some of the most evil hippies in history but you also get the once-in-a-lifetime experience of seeing Lana Turner on acid!

Seriously, what better way is there to spend 90 minutes?

(Even better, by watching The Big Cube, I could finally delete it from DVR and make some room for the next episode of Downton Abbey….)