Touch of Evil (1958) Review

Director: Orson Welles

Genre(s): Crime, Drama, Thriller

Runtime: 95 minutes (original theatrical cut), 111 minutes (restored cut)

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

Touch of Evil, released in 1958, was one of the last films noirs from the golden age of that style in the 1940s and 1950s…and it’s one of the best. The story’s about American cop Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles) and Mexican police officer Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston) investigating a fatal car-bombing along the border between their two countries. The most critically-acclaimed movie from director Orson Welles may be Citizen Kane (1941), but, to be honest, I’d rather watch Touch of Evil, which he helmed and starred in.

In addition to the talented cast, the cinematography is a major star of the show. The long, one-shot opening sequence, depicting the car-bombing that sets off the plot, is a doozy and is rightfully famous. Shadows and interesting camera angles are used incessantly. The flick has a seedy, sleazy, nocturnal atmosphere that works wonders (although a few too many scenes take place during daytime).

This boundary-pushing classic is no action picture, but those moments where the shit hits the fan warrant a chef’s kiss. One murder scene is just as intense and ferocious as anything you’d see nowadays. It’s an edge-of-your-seat part of a fantastic film, with another one of those staggering sequences being the one with the hopped-up hoodlums at a remote motel. Some have raised issue with Charlton Heston playing a Mexican character, but it’s handled very tastefully for that sort of thing (no cheesy accent here).

If I must find any fault with Touch of Evil (other than the aforementioned complaint about too much sunlight at times), it’s that the plot can feel a bit vague in the opening scenes (even if the first thing the audience sees in the entire picture is a bomb). While films noirs generally aren’t my thing, this one is harsh, in-your-face, reasonably easy to follow, not overly talky, and satisfying. This is a movie that any self-respecting cinephile needs to check out.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Where East Is East (1929) Review

Director: Tod Browning

Genre(s): Adventure, Drama, Romance

Runtime: 65 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Where East Is East is the last of the ten films that Lon Chaney starred in that were directed by Tod Browning. It is also Lon Chaney’s second-to-last silent movie (the final one being the now-mostly-lost Thunder [1929]). Set in Southeast Asia, Where East Is East is about animal trapper Tiger Haynes (Lon Chaney) reluctantly giving away the hand of his daughter – Toyo (Lupe Velez) – for marriage, but finding out that her fiancĂ© – Bobby Bailey (Lloyd Hughes) – may not be as faithful as he appears to be.

A silent melodrama through and through, I don’t think that this film does enough to separate itself from the rest of the bizarre lost triangle flicks Chaney did during his career. Sure, it has an exotic setting, but it doesn’t really have too many memorable set-pieces. Chaney does use a chair to handle a loose tiger in one scene, which is pretty cool, but, other than that, don’t go into this one expecting much action.

Chaney’s character’s relationship with his daughter is sort of creepy, perhaps intentionally so. They’re always hugging and kissing each other. I kind of doubt that people in the 1920s were constantly doing that, so it may have been a touch added by director Tod Browning to add some perversity to the mix. Also of note is an ape played by Charles Gemora. I mean, just look at this man’s filmography on IMDb! He must’ve been Hollywood’s go-to guy for playing gorillas on the Silver Screen. The dude even showed up in Island of Lost Souls (1932) as “Gorilla on Pier.”

Overall, this is an aggressively average outing for Lon Chaney. There are a few good moments (like the hunt in the opening scene), but it pales in comparison to the likes of The Penalty (1920) and West of Zanzibar (1928). It doesn’t have much to say (other than “don’t mess with Lon Chaney”…but you already knew that, right?), so I can’t really recommend it. There are worse movies out there, but a Chaney flick where he plays a vengeful animal trapper in Southeast Asia should’ve been so much better.

My rating is 5 outta 10.

Wild at Heart (1990) Review

Director: David Lynch

Genre(s): Crime, Drama, Romance, Thriller

Runtime: 125 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Wild at Heart is a crime-thriller from director David Lynch about two lovers – “Sailor” Ripley (Nicolas Cage) and Lula (Laura Dern) – who find themselves on a road trip to Hell while trying to escape the latter’s mother, Marietta Fortune (Diane Ladd). This is David Lynch we’re talking about here, so this is a deliberately weird work that won’t appeal to viewers looking for something – well – coherent. However, I love surrealism, so will Wild at Heart do the trick for me?

First of all, those expecting this to be Eraserhead: Road Trip! will be sorely disappointed. Yes, there are scenes in this flick with an oneiric feel to them, but I don’t think that the movie went far enough off the deep-end to be truly memorable. There’s this strange sense of unease throughout many sequences, but there isn’t a whole lot of dream logic. Some may be thrown off by the film’s odd sentimental streak and dark humor.

With allusions to everything from The Wizard of Oz (1939) to Elvis Presley, this picture’s approach can feel scattershot. Try something surreal, and, if that doesn’t work, try another surreal trick. Nicolas Cage’s hammy performance is amusing at first, but it’s not enough to sustain the two-hour runtime. Willem Dafoe (as killer Bobby Peru) is a highlight. Just look at that bastard’s moldy-mouthed grin beneath the bank-robbing stocking he’s wearing over his face! Terrifying, isn’t it?

There were times where I think I understood what David Lynch was going for here, but I just didn’t care enough to appreciate it. I totally dig movies that make you feel like you’ve stepped into somebody’s dream, but I couldn’t get on the same wavelength as this one. It’s a little repetitive and not quite surreal enough. Some plot threads don’t really go anywhere. I like the idea of this movie more than its actual execution.

My rating is 5 outta 10.

The Iron Mistress (1952) Review

Director: Gordon Douglas

Genre(s): Biography, Drama, Western

Runtime: 110 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

A movie where Alan Ladd plays Jim Bowie may sound like a home-run, but the 1952 bore The Iron Mistress proves this not to be the case. Ending before the outbreak of the Texan War of Independence, this film concerns itself with the early life of legendary American knife-fighter Jim Bowie (Alan Ladd) as he duels his way across the American South. It barely counts as a western, considering its geographic location, but I’ll let it slide and categorize it as one anyway.

The Iron Mistress (named after Bowie’s iconic Rambo knife) is dismally low on action. There is one sword-versus-knife duel illuminated only by lightning that’s fairly interesting, but there’s little other excitement. As I stated earlier, this flick ends before the Texan War of Independence, so don’t expect a depiction of the Battle of the Alamo.

The second act here is almost guaranteed to put you to sleep, and the first and third parts aren’t anything to write home about either. Alan Ladd plays Jim Bowie as just another Alan Ladd character. The runtime is too long, and the whole thing is about as memorable as a day spent entirely inside the confines of your own home. The way slavery is shown here is problematic, but, being a picture released in 1952, you already knew that, right?

Even Ladd aficionados will find this one a trudge. It’s hard to think of positive things to say about a flick that you almost dozed off while watching. I guess the budget seemed reasonable, giving it respectable production values. Is that a compliment? I don’t even know anymore. Well, there’s not much left to say, other than “avoid the The Iron Mistress.”

My rating is 4 outta 10.

The McConnell Story (1955) Review

Director: Gordon Douglas

Genre(s): Drama, Romance, War

Runtime: 106 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Despite being released only two years after the end of the Korean War, The McConnell Story lacks the immediacy that it should have. The based-on-a-true-story plot is about American airman Joseph C. McConnell (Alan Ladd), who, after serving in World War II, becomes a jet fighter ace in the Korean War. It’s a promising idea for a movie, but it simply doesn’t live up to its potential.

This film has the squeaky-clean, white-bread aesthetics of your stereotypical 1950s Hollywood production. I wish I was joking about how the picture spends more time on the various abodes that McConnell and his wife, Pearl “Butch” Brown McConnell (June Allyson), venture through than on aerial warfare, but I’m not. Speaking of June Allyson, the already-married Alan Ladd reportedly fell in love with her during the filming of this work.

I would not recommend this flick if you’re just in it for the action. The World War II scene is reliant on stock footage, although the dogfights in the skies above Korea fare better. They’re extremely limited in number, but they don’t appear to use much, if any, pre-existing footage. A glance at Wikipedia reveals that actual aircraft were used for these sequences, which helps with the authenticity.

The McConnell Story isn’t bad when it’s airborne, but it spends so much time grounded that I can’t say “watch it.” It turns out to be just another one of those generic ’50s war films that do little to stand out from the crowd. I wouldn’t be surprised if, in a few years, this one will become melded with The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954) in my memory.

My rating is 5 outta 10.

Tootsie (1982) Review

Director: Sydney Pollack

Genre(s): Comedy, Drama, Romance

Runtime: 116 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

A down-on-his-luck actor named Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman) decides to dress up as a woman to get a role on a television soap opera. This may be a silly cross-dressing comedy, but it has attracted a lot of attention from critics over the years. Not only was it nominated for the Oscar for Best Picture, the American Film Institute named it the sixty-ninth greatest American-made movie of all time in 2007 as part of their AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies – 10th Anniversary Edition retrospective.

Tootsie has proven immensely popular with actors over the years. In fact, the website TimeOut reported that this was actors’ favorite flick ever as part of a top one hundred countdown they did, where performers choose their most beloved motion pictures. It’s not hard at all to see why actors have latched onto this rom-com. It delves into the world of struggling stage and screen performers and sympathizes with their day-to-day “battles” to get roles. Dustin Hoffman also delivers an incredible performance here, completely disappearing into both Michael Dorsey and his female alter-ego Dorothy Michaels.

This is actually a very funny movie, as it tries to wring out every possible humorous situation a cross-dresser could find themselves in. It does feel a little long, in terms of runtime, for a comedy, though. Other very minor drawbacks include some stuck-in-the -1980s aesthetics (which really aren’t much of a big deal at all) and an ending that I wasn’t the biggest fan of.

Tootsie is an odd, yet important, lesson in empathy that feels just as relevant as ever. Okay, I don’t enjoy it quite as much as the critical establishment does, but it still makes me laugh frequently. Is this the definitive gender-bender comedy? I’m certainly not qualified to answer that question, but this work is clearly in the running for such a title. Bill Murray (as Jeff) does show up in this flick, but he wanted his name omitted from the opening credits to prevent the audience from thinking that this would be a Caddyshack (1980)-style movie.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

This Gun for Hire (1942) Review

Director: Frank Tuttle

Genre(s): Crime, Drama, Thriller, War

Runtime: 81 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The 1942 film noir This Gun for Hire was the breakout movie for tough guy actor Alan Ladd. Here, Philip Raven (Alan Ladd), a moody, cat-loving American hitman, becomes caught up in a scheme to sell national secrets to the Axis Powers during World War II. This is a surprisingly good flick, which is high praise coming from me, since I usually don’t fancy straight film noir.

The first of four pictures to feature both Alan Ladd and actress Veronica Lake, this crime-thriller greatly benefits from a relatively short runtime (eighty-one minutes) and a decent amount of action. Despite being in black-and-white, it’s rather colorful, and it also has a plot just about anybody could follow. The pacing slows down a tad as the Alan Ladd character finds himself hunted down in an industrial park, but that’s only a very minor complaint.

It’s interesting to note that this film noir could also be considered something of a war movie, since its villains intend on dealing with the Axis Powers of World War II. This level of intrigue makes the work more fun to watch. This Gun for Hire also feels somewhat daring for a flick released during the days of the Production Code. I mean, how many other American motion pictures from this time period have a hitman as their hero?

A focused crime-drama, this movie is an enjoyable watch. Alan Ladd really sells it in the role that made him a star. Even if you’re not typically a fan of noir, I’d recommend giving this one a shot. Now it’s time for some trivia. Footage from this picture was edited into the Steve Martin noir spoof Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982), and it was later remade as the mediocre Short Cut to Hell (1957), the only film ever directed by iconic actor James Cagney.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

The Buccaneer (1958) Review

Director: Anthony Quinn

Genre(s): Adventure, Drama, Romance, War

Runtime: 119 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

During the War of 1812, pirate leader Jean Lafitte (Yul Brynner) has to choose sides from between the United States and Great Britain in fighting near New Orleans. Anthony Quinn is best known as an actor, but this work finds him in the director’s chair. This is actually a remake of The Buccaneer (1938). Unfortunately, neither film is any good.

This is loosely based on a true story (Jean Lafitte was an actual high-seas brigand who became involved in the War of 1812), and Andrew Jackson (Charlton Heston) makes several appearances. There’s not really much worth reporting on the action front, as it’s pretty mediocre throughout. The movie contains a reenactment of the Battle of New Orleans, but don’t get your hopes up. It feels limited in scale and low in intensity. There are some nice pyrotechnics involving British rocket artillery, though.

The Buccaneer never feels all that authentic, with the whole production looking stagebound. A forgettable and undercooked romantic subplot turns out to be pretty important to the picture, with this melodramatic element dragging out the flick’s runtime, even after the Battle of New Orleans is over. The overall feature also feels a little too cutesy to be considered a hard-boiled war film.

So what goes right? Well, Elmer Bernstein’s musical score is quite good. It’s probably the best part of the whole thing. Sorry, Anthony Quinn, this one’s a dud. I’ve seen worse, but I still can’t recommend it. Sure, it reunited Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner after The Ten Commandments (1956), but that’s not enough for me to enjoy it. If you do happen to watch this misfire, make sure to keep your eyes peeled for Woody Strode, playing pirate Toro.

My rating is 4 outta 10.

China Sky (1945) Review

Director: Ray Enright

Genre(s): Adventure, Drama, Romance, War

Runtime: 78 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Of the innumerable war-time propaganda movies that Hollywood cranked out during World War II, 1945’s China Sky must be one of the lesser ones. One of the intentions of this picture was to foster a friendship between the American and Chinese peoples in the face of Japanese aggression, but that message is overshadowed by a soap opera of plot. You see, Dr. Gray Thompson (Randolph Scott) is aiding a remote Chinese village during the Second World War with its medical needs, when a romantic triangle develops between him, his colleague Dr. Sara Durand (Ruth Warrick), and his wife Louise Thompson (Ellen Drew).

There’s a good story tying to get out of China Sky, but the melodramatic romance does it no favors. Rather than focus on the nitty-gritty of warfare in the Chinese countryside, this work is more concerned with Ellen Drew’s character’s jealousy of her husband working closely with a female coworker. The end result is a dull film with a largely non-combat-related plot that I didn’t care how it resolved.

Fortunately, Anthony Quinn arrives, playing Chinese guerrilla leader Chen-Ta, which brightens things up (yes, Quinn plays a Chinese person in this feature…it’s one of those kind of movies). There is some occasional action, and the war-related part of the story is concluded by a firefight in the streets of a Chinese town. Even Randolph Scott’s Dr. Thompson gets in on the action, mowing down a few Japanese soldiers with a Thompson submachine gun. He just loves healing and killing people.

China Sky is a relatively short flick, but it is not a memorable one. I was pretty checked-out for several scenes in the middle. Even the movie’s star, Randolph Scott, wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about it, with Wikipedia currently saying that he found it “disappointing.” I suppose it had good intentions, but the outcome of the picture was somewhat boring. China (1943) is a far better World War II film with the word “China” in the title.

My rating is 4 outta 10.

Love with the Proper Stranger (1963) Review

Director: Robert Mulligan

Genre(s): Drama, Romance

Runtime: 102 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Love with the Proper Stranger was just one of three movies starring Steve McQueen to be released in 1963, and it’s the weakest of the trio. It also just so happens to be the second McQueen film to have both the words “Love” and “Stranger” in the title (the other being Never Love a Stranger [1958]). Anyway, the picture that this review concerns is about aspiring musician Rocky Papasano (Steve McQueen), who is confronted by a woman named Angie Rossini (Natalie Wood) who says that she’s carrying their child.

Maybe this just isn’t my type of movie, but I found it to be a bore and a chore to get through. Love with the Proper Stranger toys with some interesting topics, like some moral issues (that I won’t spoil here) and the importance of asserting one’s individuality, but it sinks into a mire of talkiness. I would also fault it for having a false climax or two.

“I don’t care what happens to these people” (referred to as the Eight Deadly Words by the website TV Tropes) is a saying that can stop a film dead in its tracks. This was the reaction that I had to this feature. For most of the runtime, I was pretty apathetic to the outcome of the plot. Like any bad flick, I just wanted the whole thing to end (at 102 minutes, it certainly could’ve been worse, though).

In my opinion, the Elmer Bernstein musical score is just about the only thing to go right in Love with the Proper Stranger. The critics thought differently at the time, and it was nominated for five Academy Awards (although it didn’t win any). I guess I’m in the minority on this call. I find little redeeming value here, so I’d say that you can safely skip this one unless you’re a Steve McQueen completionist.

My rating is 4 outta 10.