The Robot vs. The Aztec Mummy (1958)

The Robot vs. The Aztec Mummy (1958) movie poster

director  Rafael Portillo
viewed: 10/16/2018

Little wonder that when Jerry Warren got his hands on the Mexican flick La Momia Azteca that he saw the possibilities of chopping and splicing it into a his eventual Attack of the Mayan Mummy (1964). The Robot vs. The Aztec Mummy had already cannibalized La Momia Azteca and its sequel La Maldición de la Momia Azteca as the first half of this one, the final in Rafael Portillo’s Aztec Mummy trilogy.

And frankly, I’m guessing that The Robot vs. The Aztec Mummy is the only original Aztec Mummy movie you really need. Parts one and two fill up via storytelling flashbacks and voiceovers what you might have needed to know.

Only, like Godzilla later, the Aztec Mummy goes from original villain to monster good guy over the period of his films. The Aztec Mummy is actually kinda cool and scary looking.

I’m not the first to notice that super villain The Bat is a magnificent Z movie Orson Welles. The whole pulp world of the Aztec Mummy feels like Dick Tracy serials. And let me tell you, nothing trudges slower than a mummy except a poorly designed robot.

The Robot vs. The Aztec Mummy is low grade pulp, but highly pleasing low grade pulp.

The Mummy’s Curse (1944)

The Mummy's Curse (1944) movie poster

director Leslie Goodwins
viewed: 11/13/2018

The final installment of the original Universal Studio’s mummy series, The Mummy’s Curse deserves a little more love than the average critic throws its way. True, it has the perplexing relocation from Massachusetts swamps to the Louisiana bayou, but that flavoring adds character as well as disjointedness.

They are literally draining the swamp when they unearth the mummy (Lon Chaney, Jr. again). But more impressive, nay pretty sublime, is Princess Ananka’s rise from the mud. This sequence alone is worth the price of admission. It might even be one of the most amazing in the Universal canon.

Princess Ananka has morphed from Ramsay Ames into Virginia Christine (Rrroowwr!!!) It’s a little weird to realize that Christine would also be the Mrs. Olson from the Folger’s Coffee commercials that I grew up with.

There is also a nice matte painting of the ruined abbey quite (I have a serious penchant for cool matte paintings), though it seems rather incongruous with the Louisiana milieu. Maybe it’s somewhere between Massachusetts and Louisiana.

A slow ambling mummy gathers no babes to strangle.

At least Chaney didn’t have to don the mummy garb again. He apparently hated it.

The Mummy’s Ghost (1944)

The Mummy's Ghost (1944) movie poster

director  Reginald Le Borg
viewed: 10/11/2018

If The Mummy’s Tomb could have been titled The Mummy Goes America, The Mummy’s Ghost could be called The Bride of the Mummy. Because this is the first mummy flick to give the mummy the love interest motive, the rest of the time it’s been those high priests chasing the ladies. Ramsey Ames, the girl in question, even developes a white streak in hair like the Bride of Frankenstein.

For “Ghost,” our high priest is John Carradine (weird to see John Carradine so youthful) sent to America to return the mummy and the princess now to Egypt. The California hills pass for Massachusetts yet again.

One thing, when Lon Chaney, Jr. is the mummy, he gets up and about much earlier. It’s gotta be said, that mummy get-up is pretty form-fitting and none too forgiving.

The pessimistic ending, though planned with a sequel in mind, still adds an air of darkness to this episode, a very uncommon non-Hollywood ending.

“It sounds like a lot of applesauce to me.”

The Mummy’s Hand (1940)

The Mummy's Hand (1940) movie poster

director Christy Cabanne
viewed: 10/09/2018

Franchise reboots are at least as old as The Mummy’s Hand. Nobody is back from the 1932 Boris Karloff/Karl Freund/Zita Yohann Universal original. It’s also not the A-lister that the original was, The Mummy’s Hand is seriously a B picture.

The California hills pose as a poor stand-in for Egypt. But hey, this is Hollywood 1940, just put a fez on a dude and he’s a North African. A lot of low grade comedy and unnecessary plot developments round this one out. Also oodles of implicit racism “silly native superstition” run par for the course.

Interestingly the bad guys are native folk fighting to protect their historical artifacts, and the mummy kills the colonialists and treasure hunters. Though this doesn’t stop them from being the bad guys.

The mummy himself (Tom Tyler) looks super cool thanks to the uncredited Jack Pierce. But he doesn’t get shambling until pretty late in the picture and doesn’t have a ton to do. Still, this would inspire three more sequels.

While the City Sleeps (1956)

While the City Sleeps (1956) movie poster

director Fritz Lang
viewed: 08/27/2018

While the City Sleeps, Fritz Lang’s second to last Hollywood film, feels more nominally noir that fully noir. Not that noir is such a definitive thing itself.

Visually, at least, Lang takes the film into the subway tunnel for a brief chase of the serial killer, in a brief but effective sequence of something much more noir than the rest. From what I’ve read, production costs and studio limitations hampered Lang’s visual style in his last couple of films.

So, yes, there is a serial killer, but the primary focus of the film is a media empire at odds with itself. With the death of the empire’s president and namesake, the heads of the newspaper, the wire service, and the photography branch all vie for the top job under the president’s ne’er-do-well son (Vincent Price, in short and tall dark socks at one point).

The ham-fisted script roils with plot points and way too many convenient twists, but still puts up a good testament to importance of the free press.

Dana Andrews is the one reporter with a nose for the news, but he’s a drunk who’s willing to put his fiancée out as bait for the “Lipstick Killer”.  The convoluted drama is rife with noirish cynicism, but frankly, While the City Sleeps might be my least favorite Fritz Lang film I’ve seen.

Star 80 (1983)

Star 80 (1983) movie poster

director Bob Fosse
viewed: 08/26/2018

Bob Fosse’s Star 80 is the partially fictionalized real life horror story of the life of actress and Playboy Playmate, Dorothy Stratten, played here by Mariel Hemingway. Young, beautiful and naive, Stratten was discovered by her future manager and husband, Paul Snider, at a Dairy Queen in Vancouver. Snider was a sleazy promoter and hustler and pimp, who knew he had found gold in Stratten and quickly got her in the Playboy scene.

Eric Roberts plays Snider with sweaty, sublime sleazeball in a tremendous performance. For all his seedy low-life-ness, Roberts and Fosse also inflect the character with pathos, maybe even verging on the too sympathetic. It certainly gives the portrayal depth.

Snider is the ultimate villain, who quickly finds himself out of his depth in Hollywood. Where he’d hoped to make a big splash, he instead realizes how small-time he is, and more successful Svengalis, Hugh Hefner (played by Cliff Robertson) and Aram Nicholas (in real life Peter Bogdanovich, played here by Roger Rees.)

There are so many villains, and Star 80 envisions (rightly or wrongly) Stratten as only a bit player in her own life due to youth, naivete, and a lack of agency. Though Hefner and Bogdanovich saw more in her and weaned her away from Snider with hopes of opportunity and freedom, their reasons were hardly simple altruism. The film offers a reasonable, if not forceful enough indictment of Hefner and Bogdanovich.

Fosse employs faux documentary style interviews, investing the film with aspects of vérité. He also fills it with a primo period soundtrack (not all “back in the day” music was good.) Being made so close to the event (only 3 years after her death), the styles, bodies, and hair have that natural setting styles, something almost impossible to recreate in retrospective films.

But Snider is a consummate villain, a tiny, miserable man who acted in brutality and selfishness. And Roberts is amazing.

The true life version of the story extends the creepiness of Bogdanovich’s obsession with Stratten and eventually her even younger sister.

Ultimately, Star 80 packs a wallop. It’s a harsh film about a tragic story.

Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950)

Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950) movie poster

director Otto Preminger
viewed: 08/25/2018

Where the Sidewalk Ends was shot on location in New York City, but since most of the events go down at night, director Otto Preminger and cinematographer Joseph LaShelle craft a mise en scène that has all the control of a studio set. There’s a shot where Dana Andrews steps outside and an elevated train in the background comes to a stop. Magical shot.

If I’d seen Where the Sidewalk Ends before having seen Preminger’s more well-appreciated Laura (1944), I might have had a better liking for his direction and noir films. This 1950 film noir, reuniting Laura stars Andrews and Gene Tierney (Wot a babe!), is far grittier and far more noir. Tierney and Andrews are great together, easy to see why they would be paired so often.

I’ll forgo summarizing the plot because I didn’t know what was going to happen and the film’s main twist came as a surprise.

I quite enjoyed it. Solid noir.

The Set-Up (1949)

 

The Set-Up (1949) movie poster

director  Robert Wise
viewed: 08/08/2018

A film noir adapted from a poem. That’s got to be unusual.

The Set-Up, directed by Robert Wise stars Robert Ryan and Audrey Trotter and a slew of top notch character actors.

“Everybody’s a sucker for something.”

Lean, mean and sharply crafted, it’s easy to see why The Set-Up makes so many lists of best films noir. Wise keens in on the fervent bloodlust of boxing’s  bloodsport, the fatalistic nature of the genre and style. And the excellent boxing sequences and cinematography.

Also, I’m a Robert Ryan convert now.

Safe in Hell (1931)

 Safe in Hell (1931) movie poster

director William A. Wellman
viewed: 08/06/2018

“She’s the only white woman on the island.”

Gilda (Dorothy Mackaill), a  prostitute in New Orleans, accidentally kills an old lover who played her dirty. And now she needs to get out quick!’ Enter her seafaring beau, back from long months all over the globe.

“I’ve made my living the only way I could.”

Initially taken aback by this, Gilda’s fiancee still loves her and secrets her away to a small island nation in the Caribbean with no extradition policies. She’ll have to hide out, “Safe in Hell” while he ships out again.

William A. Wellman’s Safe in Hell  bears it’s origins as a play, but it’s also primo pre-code storytelling and characterization: those on the outsides of “polite society” who would not find their lives depicted after the Hays Code kicked in, plus frankness about sex, and in some cases, a very humanitarian outlook.

I’d just watched Wellman’s Frisco Jenny of the following year, which held some very similar aspects. The lead Gilda is a strong woman, acting in self-reliance, doing what she has to in order to live. True, both Jenny and Gilda end up taking noble stances that ultimately lead them to the gallows, though this tragic ending further empowers their noble motivations rather than acting as pure punishment.

Another great bit of repartee:

“May I ask you senior what are your intentions for the chicken? Honorable I hope?”

Safe in Hell also has a pretty nice jazzy score, and a all too brief singing performance by Nina Mae McKinney  (“The Black Garbo”).

Footlight Parade (1933)

Footlight Parade (1933) movie poster

directors Lloyd Bacon, Busby Berkeley
viewed: 08/02/2018

In Footlight Parade, James Cagney and Joan Blondell head up a picture about Showbiz, one of Hollywood’s popular themes of the Thirties.

Silent pictures are finished!”

But talking pictures aren’t just a fad, as Footlight Parade proves out. Rapid fire everything, as Chester Kent (Cagney) knocks out one dynamite production after another, a musical number producer (oddly enough of the non-cinematic type). This is the Depression, after all, and idea men and money-makers and entertainment still shine the light of hope and prosperity.

The first hour or so is high-paced comedy, as Cagney pumps out production after production, discovering talent left, right, and everywhere (heck, his stenographer gets a make-over and now she’s the female singing lead!) It’s all fun stuff, if not necessarily pure gold.

The last third of the Footlight Parade, Busby Berkeley transforms a good backstage comedy into unparalleled pure cinema in his nigh psychedelic musical numbers comprised of the human figure, fantasy, and genius.  

“By a Waterfall” is spectacle, visions, fantasia. Honestly, if you’ve never seen a Busby Berkeley number and only know him by his cultural references and homages, glimpses in short excerpts or stills, you really owe it to yourself to see this absolute Hollywood magic. There is nothing, truly, like it.