Friday, May 31, 2019


Michael Curtiz's The Egyptian, taken from Mika Waltari's best-seller, is remembered as a box-office flop that almost immediately killed the career of Edmund Purdom, who took on the title role after Marlon Brando abruptly quit the production. After the massive success of The Ten Commandments (1956), however, producers perceived a persistent market for things Egyptian onscreen. Italian producer Ottavio Poggi saw something salvageable in The Egyptian's setting, the reign of proto-monotheist Akhenaten, and in Purdom, the Egyptian himself. The actor was already making films in Italy, and Poggi brought in two more American stars to make his project more marketable in the U.S. From our perspective his biggest get would be Vincent Price, who had just embarked on his run of Roger Corman Poe films for American-International and had a period pedigree thanks to his performance as "master builder or master butcher" Baka in The Ten Commandments. For the title role, the icon of ancient beauty thanks to the famous bust, Poggi landed Jeanne Crain, an Academy Award nominee who apparently had reached the end of the line in A pictures back in Hollywood. Fernando Cerchio, a writer-director who had come to specialize in period pictures and had written for Purdom in Herod the Great, took the helm for Poggi.

The results may surprise students of Egyptian history. Akhenaten, or Amenophis IV (Amadeo Nazzari) is a bit on the psychotic side, but overall seems a well-meaning fellow. Having just defeated a Chaldean army shortly before ascending to the throne, the prince is impressed by the monotheistic preaching of a captured Chaldean holy man (Carlo D'Angelo). On the homefront, his buddy Tumos (Purdom), a sculptor, has fallen in love with Tenet (Crain), a woman about whom he actually knows very little. He does know that it's dangerous to love her, since Tenet's dad doesn't approve. The old man sends goons to beat up Tumos, but he gets away to find sanctuary with Amenophis' army. The pharaoh-to-be promises to permit nothing to interfere with Tumos' romance with Tenet, but he himself knows little about the girl. He goes out of his way to be nice to Tumos as a rule because he has a nasty tendency of trying to kill his friend during the occasional psychotic break. Thankfully, Tumos tends to be a good sport about this.

Tenet turns out to be not merely the ward but the daughter of Benakon (Price), the high priest of Amon. Dad has been batting away suitors so that he can marry the girl off to the next Pharaoh, to improve his own connections in the royal household. He puts Tenet through a symbolic ritual sacrifice, "killing" her by shedding a single drop of blood so she can be "reborn" as Nefertiti. A marriage is quickly arranged, with poor Amenophis having no reason to know, thanks to the name switch, that he's broken his word to Tumos. The new pharaoh is preoccupied with theological speculation and his guilty conscience over all the men he's killed in war and appears to be impotent, marking this as an alternate reality in which King Tut will never exist.

Amenophis (he never changes his name to the more familiar one) thinks he's doing his pal a favor by commissioning him to carve the famous Nefertiti bust, but the sculptor only feels betrayed by both pharaoh, who didn't know better, and queen, who had no choice in the matter. He doesn't notice how Merith (Liana Orfei), the workshop's resident model, exotic dancer and archer, is pining for him. Merith is the sort of character the modern audience would want to see win out in the end, since she's a fighting heroine on top of being arguably more attractive than the legendary queen. Her archery comes in handy several times, including the film's obligatory -- The Egyptian had one, after all -- lion fight, which Tumos, being no Victor Mature, isn't going to win by himself.

Meanwhile, with Amenophis's encouragement, the Chaldean priest is building a monotheist cult, to the dismay of High Priest Benakon. Just to show that monotheists have no monopoly on intolerance, Benakon stirs up a riot during which the Chaldean and many of his followers are murdered. This backfires on the high priest when the angry pharaoh makes monotheism the national religion and bans all other cults. There's nothing left now but to stir up an army and overthrow Amenophis, regardless of the consequences to Benakon's daughter, the queen. Can a loyal army outside the capital save the day? Can Nefertiti get Amenophis to show some backbone and stand up to the rebels? I'll spoil that one: the answer is no, because our alternate-reality pharaoh has killed himself in a fit of war guilt. Well, can Tumos save the day? Again, the answer is no, because he's about to get himself stabbed to death by Benakon before Merith puts an arrow into the high priest to end the insurrection once and for all.

Purdom is weak and Crain is pretty much wooden, required almost literally to be nothing but a pretty face. Vincent Price does what he can with his villain role, but seems uncomfortable in his high-priest regalia. Liana Orfei nearly steals the picture but doesn't quite get enough screen time to pull off the heist. Cerchio has some of the same shortcomings as other peplum directors, particularly an inability to make mass battle scenes interesting, but he's better at staging and framing dramatic confrontations in the film's interiors. The production falls short on the exteriors, however, and overall you get the feeling that Poggi blew his wad on signing the Hollywood talent and had to cut corners elsewhere. Nefertiti is interesting as an eccentric take on the Akhenaten story and is worth a look for Vincent Price fans, but is probably too close to The Egyptian for its own good, or its audience's.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Pre-Code Parade: CAUGHT PLASTERED (1931)

By 1931 the first Hollywood musical craze was dead, so RKO began putting Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey in straight comedies. Caught Plastered, directed by William Seiter, follows a template set by the team's late 1930 film Hook, Line and Sinker. It's the pattern later followed by the Marx Bros. at M-G-M, according to which the anarchic and potentially alienating clowns theoretically are made sympathetic by helping relatively normal people. In this case, our stars are out-of-work vaudevillians bumming a ride into a new town. What went wrong with their act? The theater manager told them that he doesn't tolerate profanity, Wheeler recalls. But we don't use any, Woolsey replies. No, but the audience did, Wheeler retorts. Having scored a railroad detective's badge after their latest narrow escape, Woolsey blusters his way into a free streetcar ride for himself and Wheeler by pretending to be a traction company. On board, they encounter an old woman weeping quietly. Mother Talley (Lucy Beaumont) runs a failing drug store and may have to sell out to an insistent creditor, Harry Watters (Jason Robards the elder) to afford to live in a retirement home. Inspecting the place, the ever-entrepreneurial Woolsey thinks something can be done with it, as was done with the run-down hotel in Hook Line and Sinker, while the surprisingly pragmatic Wheeler has his doubts. Somehow in these stories, whatever his past failures, the Woolsey character is shown to have a formidable gift for promotion, which in those days probably was equivalent to being a master con man. With such talent you wonder why he ever has to hide out in boxcars, but during the Depression nearly everyone, regardless or talent, was one bit of bad luck away from something like that. But perhaps the Woolsey character is better at promoting others than at promoting himself or his partner.

Whatever the reason, through aggressive sales tactics and a readiness to risk on modernization and advertising, he transforms the store into an all-purpose store with the midcentury drug store's typical food counter and soda jerky and publicizes it on a local radio program broadcast from the store, featuring the film's one musical number. Meanwhile, following the natural law, Wheeler falls in love with this film's version of Dorothy Lee, the police chief's daughter who's also desired by Harry Watters. Woolsey's business ideas are ruining the villain's plan to buy the store on the cheap and -- horror! -- convert it into a speakeasy. To sabotage Woolsey, Watters arranges to frame him by having one of his bootlegger friends sell Woolsey a supply of spiked lemon juice. While this sounds like a plan Woolsey himself would adopt as a matter of ruthless instinct, here he and Wheeler must affect outraged innocence as their clientele are, in fulfillment of the title's promise, caught plastered by the police chief. However, it's a simple matter to trick their supplier into betraying his business relationship so the drug store can be saved. If you came to know Wheeler and Woolsey from their more anarchic films from later in the Pre-Code period, Plastered will look like tame stuff, but it's not unpleasant to sit through. Films like these earned the team considerable good will that carried them through the Depression and into the Code Enforcement era until Woolsey's death in 1938 broke up the act.

Friday, May 17, 2019


Here's another in Universal's wartime cycle of exotic Technicolor adventures featuring Maria Montez, Jon Hall and sometimes Sabu. The whole cycle, which began with Arabian Nights and thus was presumably inspired by The Thief of Bagdad, is considered a milestone of camp cinema within the Hollywood studio system, while Cobra Woman in particular is often considered the campiest of them all. Future director Richard Brooks co-wrote it, having taken sole credit for a previous film in the cycle, White Savage, while Robert Siodmak directed. Siodmak was in the middle of an interesting run of films for Universal that included the proto-noir vampire film Son of Dracula, the noirish Cornell Woolrich adaptation Phantom Lady, and the still more noirish Deanna Durbin-Gene Kelly musical, Christmas Holiday. There's nothing noirish about Cobra Woman, but Siodmak's straight-faced direction, apart from scenes with a chimp in a kilt, no doubt enhances the film's camp qualities. To the extent that Siodmak takes the material seriously, the film probably looks less campy today and more like the typical studio fantasy blockbuster of our own time, within the limits of a Universal budget.

Ramu (Hall) and Tollea (Montez) are mission-educated natives on a south sea island who are about to get married. Ramu's wingman, or third wheel, is Kedo (Sabu), who on his way to the wedding has an odd encounter with a blind, mute mendicant who plays some reed instrument in the minor key that indicates that the man, despite his handicap, is up to no good. This unfortunate person is Universal's Master Character Creator, Lon Chaney jr., who is done dirty here by not being allowed to speak. Perhaps he couldn't be trusted to remember lines for this particular picture, but it's more likely that someone thought his distinctive husky honk of a voice would break Cobra Woman's delicate illusion of ethnographic realism. But I digress.

On her wedding day, Tollea vanishes. Evidence left behind indicates that the mendicant kidnapped her, and that he came from nearby Cobra Island. Ramu embarks on a rescue mission, with Kedo tagging along as a stowaway. Meanwhile, Tollea wakes up to find herself not quite a captive. The mendicant, Hava ("hey-va"), who only feigned his blindness but still can't talk, is one of the good guys of Cobra Island, a servant of its dowager queen (Mary Nash). The old lady explains that Tollea is a twin who was removed from the island early in life for her own safety, but must return to take the mantle of high priestess from her identical sister Naja, who under the influence of the evil counselor Martok (Edgar Barrier) has gone mad with power.

It might have been helpful for the old queen to have sent someone who could explain the situation to Tollea's friends. Instead, Ramu and Kedo reach the island and promptly discover who they take to be Tollea taking an elegant walk, attended by numerous ladies-in-waiting, to her afternoon swim. Knowing no better, and not exactly curious about his girl's change in condition, Ramu promptly dives in to join the high priestess. His assumption of privileges eventually gets him into trouble and before long he's tossed into a dungeon. Luckily, he overpowers Martok, steals his clothes, and is back on the loose. Unluckily, Kedo, wondering what's become of his buddy, breaks into the dungeon, sees a body in Ramu's clothes, and helpfully frees Martok.

Kedo is promptly put to the torture, but is rescued by Hava and the aforementioned chimp after a tense scene in which the ape virtually hypnotizes a guard by threading a needle, giving Hava, who clearly has a rapport with the precocious primate, time to sneak up and snap the man's neck. Kedo is barely reunited with Ramu before they're both recaptured. The pair are slated for sacrifice and are sure to be fed to the resident angry volcano unless Tollea can screw up the courage to confront her evil twin and usurp Naja's power. Fortunately, Naja never had to fight her way to power, and it shows. 75 years later we no doubt would get an elaborate, CGI-enhanced back-flipping fight to the death between the sisters. In Cobra Woman, Naja manages to topple backwards out a window after chucking a spear at Tollea and missing by a mile. It won't be enough, though, for Tollea to claim Naja's authority. She must prove herself as high priestess by performing the King Cobra dance we'd seen Naja do earlier in the picture.

That earlier scene is the highlight of the film. As high priestess, Naja's main responsibility is selecting people to be sacrificed to the volcano. The King Cobra dance starts the selection process. Once the priestess gets the snake's attention and dodges its strike, she's empowered to carry out the selection. Maria Montez does this with gusto, sashaying down the temple runway to point her finger of doom at the predestined victims. Once she points the finger, each pointee tries to run for it -- oh they of little faith! -- only to be nabbed by the rest. We see her select several victims, putting different english on the finger point each time -- Zap! You're going to die! And bam! You're going to die! -- clearly enjoying the hell out of herself.  This scene probably had a special resonance for its original wartime audience, since Naja's is the sort of nightmare fantasy of absolute power in a lunatic's hands that Americans were fighting against in Europe. Even now, there's a guilty giddiness about it that tempts you to share in Naja's pleasure, even if you excuse your pleasure as unintended laughter.

The scene repeats itself at the climax, except that innocent Tollea faints before the cobra, somehow more phallic now than during Naja's turn, can strike at her presumably virginal self. This is bound to disappoint the modern audience since it makes Tollea look weak, but we couldn't have the real swashbuckling finish, with Ramu and Kedo swinging all over the place on convenient ropes and Hava tossing Martok into a pit of spears to put the island's tyranny to a definitive end. There's also more stuff with the chimp, proving again that Cobra Woman is a film for the whole family and not just for the gay men who presumably canonized it as a camp classic. I guess I can see what they saw in it, from the beefcake courtesy of Hall and Sabu to the fantastic costumes of the Cobra Island folk, but I assume that the film had, pun intended or not, more universal appeal back in the day. It's definitely silly stuff, but it's also an eye-grabbing spectacle and a comforting allegory of liberation in the midst of war.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

AMAZONS (1986)

Sword and sorcery, a genre distinct from Tolkienesque "high fantasy," had its heyday in the 1980s, heralded by John Milius's Conan the Barbarian. The fad quickly faded in the U.S. but persisted elsewhere, fed by numerous Italian filmmakers and the likes of Roger Corman, who put an Argentinian protege, Alex Sessa, to work on Amazons, a film doomed never to live up to its Boris Vallejo poster. This film has a comparatively authentic pedigree, adapted by fantasy author Charles R. Saunders from one of his own stories, though from what I can tell the African-inspired story has been whitewashed, as they say now, to accommodate a caucasian cast of actors.

What we have here is a good kingdom, defended in part by an army of amazons, under attack by the forces of the evil sorcerer Kalungo (Joseph Whipp). Kalungo's powers are awesome: he can cast lightning from his fingers and bring multiple bolts blasting down on his enemies. In closer quarters, he can pull Jedi-style force tricks, inflicting suffering on his enemies without taxing the special-effects budget. The good wizard on the other side is no match for him, but the problem with evil sorcerers is that they often have unique vulnerabilities. Kalungo, for instance, is susceptible to the Sword of Azundati, the sort of legendary weapon that tends to be found on fantasy worlds. Fortunately for him, at least in the short term, it takes an arduous quest to find the sword.

Doubly fortunate for the evil one, the amazon general who orders the quest (Danitza Kingsley) is his secret ally, spy and lover. She assigns two warriors to the task: her own daughter Tashi (Penelope Reed) and Dyala (Windsor Taylor-Randolph), the daughter of her old dead rival. Tashi's mom killed Dyala's mom some time back, but not before the latter cut one of her hands off. Still carrying a grudge in her artificial hand, the general orders Tashi to kill Dyala once she has the sword. The shared dangers and mutual rescues involved in a quest draw the younger women together, however, and when the supreme moment comes, Tashi can't go through with it. Instead, she sacrifices herself when the were-cat sent by Kalungo to stalk the questers attacks, leaving Dyala to pursue a lone course of vengeance against the sorcerer and the traitorous general.

Amazons is cheap stuff. Whatever Saunders' intentions, the idea on the production side seems to have been to provide a platform for topless shots and a number of clumsily staged fight scenes. No one on screen impresses as a warrior or a performer, but at least Taylor-Randolph (perhaps better known as Mindi Miller) goes enjoyably over the top during Dyala's climactic fight with Kalungo, prefacing the final blow with a mighty "NOW! YOU! DIIIIIEEEE!"  There's clearly some imagination at work here, from the savages who sacrifice a pack of passive priestesses and ride a slave-drawn wagon with additional slaves as human hubcaps to the bizarre idea introduced near the end that Dyala has a spirit tree that can be chopped down to kill her -- except that it ends up falling on the traitor general who'd been chopping it down. But the production tends to homogenize whatever ideas Saunders had to the literal generic level, while the actors do next to nothing to bring those ideas to life.

One thing I did like about the picture was its unromantic treatment of its two heroines. Amazons proves to be a story of female friendship. Neither Dyala nor Tashi has a boyfriend, while the one amazon who consorts with a man is a traitor. In the film's happy ending, the sorceress who was custodian of the Sword of Azundati arranges for the martyred Tashi to return to life. She and Dyala ride off together, in theory to find more adventures. Depending on how you imagine amazons, they can be battle buddies or something more intimate, but that's up to you the viewer -- especially since the characters were never seen again on film.

Saturday, May 4, 2019

Pre-Code Parade: ALIAS FRENCH GERTIE (1930)

Veteran silent comedienne Bebe Daniels proved she had a voice with the 1929 hit musical Rio Rita.  Alias French Gertie, directed by George Archainbauld, was the first test of whether Daniels could carry a talking picture without songs. It's a romantic crime comedy co-starring Ben Lyon, whom Daniels would marry shortly after the film's release. She first appears as a society matron's careless French maid, but we soon learn that she's an American crook who insinuated her way into the household in order to get a crack at its safe and its jewels. Ace safecracker Jimmy (Lyon), who boasts of needing no tools in his trade, has the same idea, but is surprised to find the maid holding a gun on him. In the course of meeting cute and talking shop, these master criminals somehow forgot about a butler still hanging around the place. When that worthy calls the police, Jimmy chivalrously agrees to take the fall, after snatching a diamond necklace from out of Gertie's blouse, while allowing her to pretend to be a mere victim rolled up in a carpet. After serving some relatively easy time, Jimmy hooks up with Gertie again, but both are under the sentimental scrutiny of veteran detective Kelcey (archetypal pre-code cop Robert Emmet O'Connor). That doesn't stop them from building a nest egg by stealing from others', but when a social opportunity turns into a business opportunity, Gertie convinces Jimmy to go straight and invest their $30,000 worth of plunder into a straight partnership. The saps: they wanted to go straight, but their legit partner was really crooked. Jimmy and Gertie never bothered checking the books, apparently, so it comes as a major shock when they learn that their partner never invested any of his own money in the venture and was merely biding his time until he could skip off with their money. This understandably cools Jimmy on the idea of going straight, but Gertie doesn't want to go back to the old life. In a preposterous climax, as if reading Jimmy's mind, Gertie resumes her French-maid act and returns to her old employers in order to prevent Jimmy from returning to the scene of their first crime together and throwing his life away. Having already tipped off Kelcey on the basis of her psychic powers, Gertie decides to end Jimmy's criminal career once and for all by shooting him in his safecracking hand. Jimmy proves to be a remarkably good sport about this, and so does Kelcey, who decides that no crime has happened and lets our lovers start over somewhere else. While Daniels proves a charismatic performer, one can understand after watching this why RKO dropped her contract once her musicals started flopping. Daniels and Lyon bounced around Hollywood for several years more, with Daniels getting a small but prominent part in 42nd Street as the star eclipsed by Ruby Keeler, before finding their most enduring success on British radio. She probably deserved better than this film.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

THE HOT BOX (1972)

 The women's prison film was only the most common form of a captivity narrative that was strangely quite popular in Seventies cinema. These films are often girl-power stories in some way, yet the idea seems to be to give the girls something to really rebel against in place of mere male chauvinism -- or else it was to offer a sufficiently exaggerated metaphor for male domination to make audience's vicarious enjoyment of women's lethal revenge ultimately harmless. Whatever the deal was, Roger Corman proteges Jonathan Demme and Joe Viola joined forces in the Philippines to shoot this variation on the formula, with future Oscar-winner Demme as producer and co-writer. In this one, four American nurses working in the fictional Republic of San Rosario  -- two blondes, one brunette and one black -- are taken captive by a revolutionary army while on an outing with some native male friends. The men are set adrift while the bikini-clad Americans are led into the jungle by an especially rude band of rebels. These men are little more than mercenaries, but the revolutionary leader, Flavio (Carmen Argenziano) is a more honorable man. He needs nurses to tend his troops, and the girls can either join or die.

Margaret Markov, Pam Grier's co-star in The Arena and Black Mama, White Mama, is probably the best known of the actresses. Her character gets the radicalization angle, beginning to sympathize with the People's Army as she recognizes the desperation of their plight, while the black character (Rickey Richardson) takes an ironically stereotyped view of the "filthy" San Rosarians. If she wanted to take part in a revolution, she tells someone, she could go back home to Chicago. The nurses notice a rift between Flavio and one of his trusted lieutenants, the knife master Ronaldo (Zaldy Zchornack), who seems more pragmatic than his sometimes-bullheaded leader, who basks in the publicity provided by radical war correspondent Garcia (Charles Dierkop). As Ronaldo grows more dissatisfied, the Americans see him as their way out.

Sure enough, Ronaldo leads them to safety, or so he and they think. Instead, he's led them from the frying pan into the fire. It turns out that Ronaldo had been informing for the government because they were holding his brothers hostage. It also turns out that Garcia the journalist is actually a military officer planning to ambush and wipe out the clueless Flavio's forces. We see at last that the government, represented by Garcia, is far worse than the revolutionaries. The dishonorable officer has had Ronaldo's brothers put to death and promises the same fate for Ronaldo himself. He turns three of the nurses over to his men for a title-justifying stint in a cage bombarded by a steam hose, while reserving the fourth for his rapey self. Realizing the profound error of their ways, the nurses and Ronaldo manage to escape and warn Flavio of Garcia's plans, giving him a chance to ambush the ambushers in a climactic battle in which the American women take a fighting part.

The Hot Box is blatant, unapologetic exploitation. The nurses are often topless, sometimes against their will, and their long-legged good looks are the obvious main attraction. Inevitably they turn into amazons, and for the most part they look the part. Acting honors clearly belong to Dierkop, who goes from inconspicuous hanger-on all they way over the top to scenery-chewing big bad. It's not exactly a good performance, but it's great for this kind of film because he really makes you want his character dead. Viola's direction goes into another gear in sync with Dierkop's performance, enhancing an already pulpy story with wipes and other cartoony transitions as the pace picks up. The screenplay has some nice touches, like a surprise reappearance by the sleazy mercenaries and a two-part gag in which the nurses and Ronaldo steal a man's motorboat, only to return it neatly to him on their way back -- before stealing his truck. The film moves at a good clip and keeps busy, which is either the least or the most we can ask of such a project. By now films like this are objects of nostalgia as much as they are entertainments. This one in particular is the sort of film that doesn't get made anymore; you see neither its crude presentation of women nor their transformation into avatars of revolution. It can probably be only a guilty pleasure now, but if you're in the proper frame of mind it can still be unpretentious, energetic fun.