What Ever Happened to Jennifer?

Jennifer’s gone missing. She was supposed to be looking after her uncle’s sprawling estate, which appears to have been abandoned since the Great Depression, but no one has seen her in weeks. Did she run off with an unknown lover? Did she swindle an undisclosed sum of money from her previous boss and head to Mexico on a cruise ship? Or was Jennifer murdered by a mysterious killer and buried somewhere on the property? These are the questions that will plague Agnes Langly (Ida Lupino) after she’s hired to replace the missing woman as the new caretaker in Joel Newton’s low-key thriller simply titled JENNIFER (1953).

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Goodbye Goddess: Elizabeth Taylor 1932-2011

Elizabeth Taylor has always been one of my favorite actresses. She was an incredible natural beauty. Arguably the most beautiful actress Hollywood ever produced but she was also a brilliant performer when she wanted to be. She dominated almost every film she ever appeared in even when that film wasn’t particularly worthy of her larger than life presence. Taylor was a complex woman with a rich inner life who enjoyed living and one look into her deep violet eyes told you this. Inside of Taylor there seemed to be a volcanic mountain of pent-up emotion just waiting to explode. Her appetite for life was voracious but her heart was huge, open and warm. These are rare and wonderful qualities that you seldom find in today’s Hollywood stars.

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Orson Welles’ Irish Ghost Story

I love a good ghost story and some of the best ones ever written have come from the hearts and minds of Irish authors but very few of them have been adapted for the screen. Horror movies set in Ireland that feature an Irish cast are a rare commodity, which makes RETURN TO GLENNASCAUL (1953) all the more special. This short supernatural film featuring Orson Welles is a real treat for horror fans as well as anyone looking for a something unusual to watch on St. Patrick’s Day.

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Authority Is the Child of Obedience

Are human beings inherently cruel or do we learn cruelty by example? Does our genetic makeup dictate our personalities at birth or are we shaped by numerous circumstances including our environments and upbringing? To borrow the title of a current popular song, are we “born this way” or are we more complex creatures than our personal DNA map might suggest? The nature vs. nurture debate has been going on for centuries and many films have attempted to tackle it head on. One of the best examples of this is Peter Brooks’ extraordinary film adaptation of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1963), which argues that people are savages at heart and in the right circumstances we’re all likely to turn on one another. Another film, which I recently had the opportunity to watch, champions the other side of the argument. John Mackenzie’s haunting film adaptation of Giles Cooper’s radio play UNMAN, WITTERING AND ZIGO (1971) questions the example set by Lord of the Flies and suggests that we’re taught savage behaviors, which could manifest in acts of violence.

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Vincente Minnelli’s Metaphysical Musical

I’ve been thinking about Vincente Minnelli’s films a lot lately. It started around the holidays after I caught one of my favorite Minnelli musicals, MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS (1944), playing on TCM one evening. I’d seen the film many times before but I paid closer attention to the lush sets, beautiful costumes and meticulous staging. I became mesmerized by the bright pops of color and the unexpected ways that characters mingled with their environments. In the following weeks it seemed like Minnelli’s films were haunting me. In the past few months I’ve caught snippets of FATHER OF THE BRIDE (1950), THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL (1952) and TEA AND SYMPATHY (1956) playing on television and I’ve been obsessively reading Vincente Minnelli: The Art of Entertainment edited by Joe McElhaney. Last week I decided to revisit another one of my favorite Vincente Minnelli films, his metaphysical musical ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER (1970). The deceased director will be celebrating his 108th birthday on February 28th and I thought it would be as good a time as any to share a few of my thoughts about this vastly underrated film.

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“Was the murderer a man… or man’s best friend?”

My movie viewing experiences have been rather disappointing lately. I’ve spent a lot of time catching up with the critical and box office successes of 2010 and many of them have left me scratching my head and wondering what I’m missing. But it isn’t just new films that have led to disappointment and lots of wasted hours in recent weeks. I also made the mistake of ordering a couple of duds from the Warner Archive Collection, which was really frustrating. As much as I appreciate Warner and other studios making many of their older films available on DVD-R I can’t possibly afford to buy everything I want to see and I prefer to rent a film before purchasing it so I can decide if it’s worth owning. Most of the films I’m interested in buying are obscure titles so there’s very little critical information available about them. To make matters worse, the viewer ratings on the Warner Archive site tend to be extremely favorable and every film seems to receive four or five star reviews. I don’t particularly like writing about films I dislike but in this case I feel like I’m doing a public service by warning potential buyers to be weary of THEY ONLY KILL THEIR MASTERS (1972).

I’ve been curious about THEY ONLY KILL THEIR MASTERS for years mainly due to its catchy title and subject matter. I also love a good mystery and the movie’s original poster art grabbed my attention. The film’s plot centers around the murder of a beautiful and mysterious woman in a small California coastal town. It’s assumed that she was killed by her dog, a Doberman Pinscher, that was found hovering over her dead body. Naturally there aren’t a lot of suspects in a town with such a small population but the local sheriff (James Garner) takes his time looking for clues and interviewing potential witnesses. Throughout the course of the film a few red herrings are tossed around without much forethought until the whole thing comes to an unimaginative end.

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Anne Francis in The Satan Bug (1965)

Like many film fans, I was disappointed to learn that Anne Francis had passed away on January 2 due to complications from pancreatic cancer. She was 80 years old at the time and is fondly remembered for her roles in movies like Susan Slept Here (Frank Tashlin; 1954), Blackboard Jungle (Richard Brooks; 1955), Bad Day at Black Rock (John Sturges; 1955) and the science fiction classic Forbidden Planet (Fred M. Wilcox; 1956). She also appeared in many popular television shows including The Twilight Zone (1960-63), The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (1963-65) and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (1964). And won an Emmy for her starring role in Honey West (1965-66).

The beautiful and athletic actress always seemed to have a sparkle in her eye and the tiny mole that accented her winning smile gave her a distinct look that was hard to forget. She wasn’t your typical blond bombshell. Anne Francis was a brainy and tough broad who could obviously take care of herself and I admired her apparent confidence as well as her sense of humor.

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Bogart & Lorre: A Match Made In Movie Heaven

The cast of PASSAGE TO MARSEILLES (1943)

PASSAGE TO MARSEILLES isn’t the type of film that normally sparks my interest. I have an aversion to propaganda films and I’m not particularly fond of prison break movies but I love Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre so I’ll watch them in anything. I’ve seen all the films that the two actors made together but for one reason or another I’ve managed to overlook PASSAGE TO MARSEILLES until now. Maybe it was all the lackluster reviews I read? I finally caught up with the movie last weekend and I’m happy to report that PASSAGE TO MARSEILLES surpassed my low expectations. It wasn’t the overlooked masterpiece I wanted it to be but I think it’s well worth recommending.

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Missing Mad Men?

Like a lot of people, I’m a big fan of the AMC series MAD MEN and ever since the fourth season of the show came to an end a few weeks ago I’ve been eagerly awaiting season five. MAD MEN is one of the most highly praised dramas currently playing on television and I think the awards it has won have been well deserved. It’s a smart and occasionally very funny show with some of the best writing on television, but I also appreciate the look of the series. The impressive wardrobe design and stylish sets manage to perfectly convey the various moods and atmosphere of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s that I’ve come to love thanks to watching lots of movies made during the same period that MAD MEN is trying to emulate.

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The Art of Murder

There seems to be a growing nostalgia for the VHS age that I can appreciate. I grew up watching videos and I treasure the hours I spent scouring the shelves of my local video rental stores looking for unusual old films to watch. I spent most of my time in the horror aisles since horror has always been my favorite movie genre but being a horror fan during the VHS age wasn’t always easy. A lot of the horror movies that I originally watched on video were heavily edited thanks to overzealous censors or companies that were eager to make movies more television friendly. During the ’80s and early ’90s it wasn’t uncommon to come across two or three different versions of the same movie on video released under different titles so you never really knew what you were actually watching. One of the horror films that I originally saw on video for the first time was the British thriller CRUCIBLE OF TERROR (1971). The print was terrible and the film had been so badly edited that I could barley follow the plot. This lackluster viewing experience definitely colored my opinion of CRUCIBLE OF TERROR and it remained a distant memory until recently when I learned that it was being released on DVD by Severin Films. This new uncut version of CRUCIBLE OF TERROR was produced using the best print of the movie in existence and I’m happy to report that I found the movie much more enjoyable on DVD.

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