Thunder in the East (1952) Review

Director: Charles Vidor

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

Runtime: 97 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Here’s an adventure-drama that tries to cash in on the violence that took place on the Indian subcontinent following its independence from Great Britain. Shortly after India gains its freedom, American arms dealer Steve Gibbs (Alan Ladd) tries to sell some weapons to the maharajah (Charles Lung) of a remote Indian state, but gets involved in local intrigue involving a warlord, Newah Khan (Philip Bourneuf), who may be plotting an attack on the maharajah’s palace. Boy, did Alan Ladd corner the market on these mercenary-who-secretly-has-a-heart-of-gold roles or what?

Thunder in the East has a great idea for a story, but the slow-burn execution doesn’t do it any favors. Instead of ratcheting up the tension related to the warlord who wants the maharajah dead, the film spends a great deal of time juggling a romantic triangle. Alan Ladd is the star of the show, but Charles Boyer gets the opportunity to play an interesting supporting character: Prime Minister Singh. He’s the real power behind the local leader and is a very strict pacifist, doing his best to keep weapons off of his property. Yes, it’s a White guy playing an Indian, but it’s nice to see a strong Indian character with a real moral backbone.

The action’s fairly limited in Thunder in the East, despite its pulpy, sensationalistic title. A punch is thrown here, a pot-shot is taken at the maharajah’s palace there. It really isn’t until the last few seconds of the runtime that we get some carnage with a respectable body count. I won’t give away the details for spoiler reasons, but let’s just say that this finale is somewhat preposterous, but still satisfying and it ties everything up with a nice bow.

This movie is a little disappointing, but that doesn’t make it bad. Alan Ladd’s very much in his wheelhouse here and the ending’s memorable. It’s a fair-enough take on the last-stand war picture, so if you like flicks like The Alamo (1960), 55 Days at Peking (1963), Zulu (1964), and Khartoum (1966), you should consider looking into Thunder in the East. Of course, it’s not as good as those films, but it’s still a watchable, relatively low-budget alternative.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

Man of a Thousand Faces (1957) Review

Director: Joseph Pevney

Genre(s): Biography, Drama

Runtime: 122 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

In 1957, a film was released where James Cagney played Lon Chaney. I repeat: James Cagney played Lon Chaney. One of the greatest actors in history playing another one of the greatest actors in history? This is not a drill! How could you not be amped for this picture? The movie in question is a biopic of film actor Lon Chaney (James Cagney, as I’ve said twice before), documenting his journey from Hollywood extra to seemingly shape-shifting mega-star.

Okay, this flick really isn’t as good as it sounds. Many of Lon Chaney’s more interesting screen roles are basically glossed over in order to give the audience some drama. Man of a Thousand Faces never misses an opportunity to wring out as much melodrama from the proceedings as humanly possible. The sequence where Chaney’s wife, Cleva Creighton Chaney (Dorothy Malone), reacts histrionically to meeting her husband’s parents (played by Celia Lovsky and Nolan Leary) is almost unbearable.

On the bright side, this production does a interesting job of foreshadowing some of the roles Lon Chaney would have throughout his career. For examples, there’s a legless man (reminding one of The Penalty [1920]), a Chinese man (Mr. Wu [1927]), Chaney in drag as an old lady (The Unholy Three [1925] and The Unholy Three [1930]), and Chaney as a clown (He Who Gets Slapped [1924] and Laugh, Clown, Laugh [1928]). There are also some cool glimpses behind-the-scenes at early Hollywood filmmaking.

Oh yeah, Jim Backus also shows up as Clarence Locan, Lon Chaney’s agent. That’s right, Mr. Howell is in this flick! Overall, Man of a Thousand Faces is pretty disappointing most of the time, focusing more on Chaney’s personal life than his onscreen antics. Fans of James Cagney and/or Lon Chaney may find some value in watching it once (or even twice), but if you’re not in either of those actors’ fan clubs, you should probably choose something else for movie night.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

Cape Fear (1991) Review

Director: Martin Scorsese

Genre(s): Crime, Drama, Thriller

Runtime: 128 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

The original Cape Fear (1962) is a terrific movie, but director Martin Scorsese sent a remake to theaters in 1991. So, which one is better? Before we get into that, let’s go over the plot. A deeply disturbed rapist who was recently released from prison, Max Cady (Robert De Niro), stalks the lawyer who unsuccessfully defended him in court, Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte), and his family. Okay, I won’t leave you in suspense, the 1962 one is superior, but the 1991 version is still worth watching.

The newer release of Cape Fear is, interestingly enough, much pulpier and more unsubtle than the original. The direction is histrionic and in-your-face, making you wonder if Martin Scorsese was trying to be funny. It’s almost comically over-the-top at times. I’m not sure if “operatic” is a word I’d normally use to describe a crime-thriller about a rapist stalking a lawyer and his family. To add to the movie’s heightened energy, the loud-and-proud musical themes from the 1962 original, composed by Bernard Herrmann, are employed here, as adopted by Elmer Bernstein.

The 1991 Cape Fear adds traces of moral ambiguity that weren’t present in the original. Unfortunately, this only detracts somewhat from the tension, as it’s scarier when the villain is interrupting a picture-perfect lifestyle of the heroes, as seen in the 1962 version. Robert De Niro’s bad guy’s characterization is all over the place. At least, three of the actors from the older one – Gregory Peck (as Lee Heller, a slimy lawyer), Robert Mitchum (playing Elgart, a policeman), and Martin Balsam (portraying a judge) – make cameo appearances.

Scorsese’s version of the story ups the ante (including in the violence department), but at what cost? It’s also the longer film, making it seem less taut than the 1962 one. However, it’s still a compelling thriller with some memorable scenes. It would probably be more fondly remembered if it wasn’t riding the coattails of the original, directed by J. Lee Thompson. It’s not essential viewing for film buffs, but they probably won’t regret watching it once or twice.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Cape Fear (1962) Review

Director: J. Lee Thompson

Genre(s): Crime, Drama, Thriller

Runtime: 106 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The 1962 classic Cape Fear (which was remade in 1991 with the same title) is one of those thrillers that wasn’t directed by Alfred Hitchcock, but easily feels like it could’ve been (another one is Mirage [1965], which also stars Gregory Peck). An ex-con named Max Cady (Robert Mitchum), who just got out of prison, stalks the lawyer, Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck), who put him behind bars and his family. It could be the docks or the “bowling center,” Max Cady is sure to be right behind them.

This modern-feeling crime-drama was directed by J. Lee Thompson, who had previously helmed the World War II action-adventure masterpiece The Guns of Navarone (1961) and would later direct – erm – Death Wish 4: The Crackdown (1987). His leadership of the project is rock-solid. Cape Fear is a tense, tightly-wound movie, with moody black-and-white cinematography and a booming, delightfully unsubtle musical score from Bernard Herrmann (who frequently collaborated with Alfred Hitchcock).

One of the best aspects of this picture is its performances. It’s a battle of wills (that’s threatening to turn physical) between Gregory Peck’s upright integrity and Robert Mitchum’s sexual menace. The latter is truly an animalistic force of nature here. Watching him crash the Bowden family’s idyllic lifestyle is disturbing. Good supporting roles are provided by Martin Balsam as Mark Dutton, the police chief, and Telly Savalas as Charles Sievers, a private detective.

The 1962 version of Cape Fear is a tremendous thriller in the vein of Psycho (1960)-era Alfred Hitchcock. Intense from the get-go, the movie succeeds on Mitchum’s character’s unpredictability and Gregory Peck’s character’s willingness to go to extremes to defend himself and his family. It carefully escalates tension and excitement without feeling pulpy (not that pulp is a bad thing by any means). You have to find a copy of this one to watch.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

The Batman (2022) Review

Director: Matt Reeves

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

Runtime: 176 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

Man, these Batman movies just keep getting darker and darker, don’t they? Set in Gotham City, superhero/masked vigilante Batman (Robert Pattinson) fights to stop the twisted murderer the Riddler (Paul Dano), who’s been bumping off members of the city’s elite. It’s a superhero actioner, an underworld neo-noir, a serial killer thriller, and a psychological drama all in one, without ever feeling hastily assembled or scattershot.

Robert Pattinson makes a surprisingly fearsome Batman, but a mediocre Bruce Wayne. Paul Dano’s Riddler is hold-your-breath scary, not just for his gruesome murders, but also for the philosophical threat he poses to Batman’s brand of justice. James Gordon is played by Jeffrey Wright, who knocks it out of the park with this role. The plot sometimes threatens to become convoluted, but it mostly stays understandable for somebody who’s bad at following intricate stories (like myself). The sinister musical score by Michael Giacchino sometimes resembles a high-tech, high-powered dirge.

The action sequences in The Batman might seem a little reserved at first compared to those in other entries in the Caped Crusader’s filmography. However, they feature clear camerawork, exciting choreography, and high stakes. The fist fight illuminated by automatic weapons fire, the harsh, pulse-pounding car chase, and the finale are the highlights in the action department. Pushing the MPAA’s PG-13 rating to its limits, this flick sometimes gives the audience am-I-watching-something-illegal? vibes, especially during the scenes involving the Riddler’s “dark web” presence.

The Batman is one of the best films in the superhero’s franchise. It features a solid blend of Batman doing detective work and outright battling his foes. Sure, it’s dark, intense, and oppressive, but this gamble paid off big time here, with the picture pulling off a real sense of danger and a desperate need for heroism. There are plenty of ace movies set in the Batman universe out there, and this is a welcome addition to that growing filmography.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

First to Fight (1967) Review

Director: Christian Nyby

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

Runtime: 92 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Loosely based on the real-life story of American Marine John Basilone, who became a U.S. war hero, First to Fight is a solid, if somewhat unremarkable, entry into the war genre. World War II is raging, and U.S. trooper Jack Connell (Chad Everett) is sent back to the United States to drum up support for buying war bonds after becoming a hero at the Battle of Guadalcanal in the Pacific Theater. There are some similarities with other war flicks that have been made throughout the decades, but it still manages to be watchable.

The grenade-chucking battle scenes stick out in memory. The opening, nighttime firefight is especially fearsome. The battles have some careful choreography and are fairly violent for a 1960s movie. A few blood squibs are briefly visible during the hectic action sequences. The war zone takes up a great deal of the runtime in the first and third acts, with an okay romantic subplot occupying the middle act.

When the main character is on the home front, he spends most of his time romancing Peggy Sanford (Marilyn Devin). These scenes are not intolerable, but I think that most viewers would rather see what’s going on on the front lines. The movie masterpiece Casablanca (1942) ends up getting referenced quite a bit during this section of the picture. Hell, the characters even watch it in the theater. However, all of this just makes you want to view that film instead.

All in all, First to Fight is reasonable entertainment. I’m actually a bit surprised that it’s not remembered more fondly. The action scenes alone should’ve prevented this one from being almost completely forgotten. There’s one element to the work that I haven’t commented on yet, and that’s the presence of Gene Hackman as Tweed in one of his earliest roles. This flick was released the same year as his breakout film Bonnie and Clyde (1967), and it shows his potential to be a great movie star.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) Review

Director: Wallace Worsley

Genre(s): Drama, Romance

Runtime: 133 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Lon Chaney solidified his position as one of the greatest actors of the silent era with the 1923 version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Set in fifteenth-century Paris, France, an ugly-looking hunchback living in Notre Dame cathedral named Quasimodo (Lon Chaney) finds himself wrapped up in a plot to start a revolt by the French underclass. This silent film was directed by Wallace Worsley, who also helmed the exceptional The Penalty (1920), the gangster drama that was Lon Chaney’s breakout motion picture.

This big-budget historical epic has production values that still impress. The sets made for the flick are absolutely incredible. There are a few I-wonder-how-they-did-that moments, such as when Quasimodo is clambering all around the exterior of Notre Dame. Chaney’s performance is mesmerizing. He was forty when The Hunchback of Notre Dame was released, but he has the physicality of someone half that age here. He truly was the Man of a Thousand Faces.

Chaney’s a sight to see, but the film around him isn’t always doing him favors. There are a lot of characters to keep track of here, and the hunchback of Notre Dame almost becomes a supporting character in his own movie. The plot of the flick is pretty typical silent-era melodrama. Remove Chaney and the sets, and nobody would remember this picture. Fortunately, those two things are present, making it a rather good production overall.

Okay, the story in the 1923 adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame isn’t its strong suit. Acting and spectacle are what it does best. Seeing Chaney fight a mob by dousing them in boiling lead is worth watching the film for. The movie’s politics are certainly undercooked (is it saying that battling against royalist oppression is a bad thing?), but Chaney is one of the all-time greats, so I’d say “watch it.”

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) Review

Director: Michael Curtiz

Genre(s): Crime, Drama

Runtime: 97 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

James Cagney returned to the role of gangster in 1938 with the popular crime-drama Angels with Dirty Faces. Here, a group of inner-city kids find themselves torn between the influences of tough mobster Rocky Sullivan (James Cagney) and virtuous priest Jerry Connelly (Pat O’Brien). Who will they follow in the footsteps of? Who will survive to the ending? Is James Cagney the best basketball referee of all time? Humphrey Bogart also shows up as corrupt lawyer James Frazier.

Cagney gives one of the strongest performances of his career here (he was given an Oscar nomination for Best Actor). The acting is terrific across the board, and the use of light and shadow is excellent. Overall, this movie is not as nitty-gritty as The Public Enemy (1931), action-packed as ‘G’ Men (1935), or ferocious as White Heat (1949), but Angels with Dirty Faces has a clear identity of its own.

This is a very well-paced gangster film, with it moving from scene to scene with amazing grace. On the action front, things are pretty solid. The big action moment, the final shootout, has got to be one of the very best gunfights in cinema up to that point in history. Cagney apparently had actual bullets fired in his general area during filming. Director Michael Curtiz (who would later helm Casablanca [1942]) is no stranger when it comes to exciting action.

It’s not quite up there with the aforementioned White Heat or The Public Enemy, but Angels with Dirty Faces is still one of Cagney’s best flicks. The picture’s ambiguous ending has been debated by fans for decades, and the acting still holds up. This one is certainly recommended. In Home Alone (1990), a movie titled Angels with Filthy Souls is watched on television, and, in its sequel, Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (1992), a film named Angels with Even Filthier Souls makes an appearance.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

I Walk the Line (1970) Review

Director: John Frankenheimer

Genre(s): Crime, Drama, Romance

Runtime: 97 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

Gregory Peck stars in a rural crime-drama with a soundtrack consisting of tracks from Johnny Cash? Yes, this film exists…and it’s not too bad either. In small-town Tennessee, Sheriff Tawes (Gregory Peck) falls in love and has an affair with Alma McCain (Tuesday Weld), the daughter of local illegal moonshiner Carl McCain (Ralph Meeker). Blood will be shed before this story is over.

Of course, the most famous element of this picture is its Johnny Cash soundtrack (“I Walk the Line” is unsurprisingly present). It’s not enough to make the movie worth watching by itself, but it does improve the scenes that it appears in. There isn’t much action here, but there is suspenseful excitement at the very end. This is far from Gregory Peck’s best role, but he’s fine in I Walk the Line.

Even though I Walk the Line is about the main character’s personal dilemma, it isn’t a particularly inspiring (for the lack of a better word) one. How about not having an affair, especially with a moonshiner’s kid? How about that, Mr. Peck? Think! Gregory’s character’s wife, Ellen Haney (Estelle Parsons), and his deputy, Hunnicutt (Charles Durning), probably end up suffering the most from his affair, even if both of their roles are pretty forgettable.

According to the IMDb Trivia section for this work, it is “[c]onsidered by many to be Peck’s worst film.” Ouch. Okay, I don’t think that it’s that terrible (haven’t these viewers seen Marooned [1969]?), but it doesn’t give you very many compelling reasons to set aside some time for it. I Walk the Line is watchable, despite being neither-here-nor-there in the recommendability department. Normally I’d say “Gregory Peck fans might enjoy it,” but, considering its reputation, I’ll just keep my mouth shut.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

The Straight Story (1999) Review

Director: David Lynch

Genre(s): Biography, Drama

Runtime: 112 minutes

MPAA Rating: G

IMDb Page

Old Iowan man Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth), who can’t drive regular automobiles, sets out on his riding lawnmower to visit his ill brother, Lyle (Harry Dean Stanton), who lives in Wisconsin. In a filmography largely consisting of bizarre, uneasy-feeling surrealist flicks, this just might be director David Lynch’s strangest movie. I mean, David Lynch actually made a motion picture that was released by Disney and given a G rating by the MPAA (despite some mild swearing and a dead deer)?

One of the most stereotypically Midwestern movies ever made, the acting performances here are all completely convincing. The actors and actresses in The Straight Story are really good. It’s probably one of the best-acted productions I’ve ever seen. It really draws you in and it ends just as soon as the main character’s lawnmower-riding shtick starts to get old for the audience.

Rejoice David Lynch fans, for his trademark weird sense of humor is still alive and well (although this is a drama first and foremost). The Straight Story might have a gentle exterior, but is it just me, or does this flick deal with some heavy topics? The scene depicting veterans discussing their war-time experiences springs to mind as one of the movie’s weightier moments.

This Midwestern odyssey is worth watching…but for who? Yes, it’s rated G by the MPAA, but would a child enjoy it? It’s probably a bit too slow, contemplative, and lacking in fireworks for the younger demographics, but I’m sure many adults will get a kick out of it. It’s more than just a movie about an old-timer driving around on a lawnmower, it’s an existentially-minded drama with some moving elements. Oh yeah, it’s also based on a true story. Who would’ve known?

My rating is 7 outta 10.