Champion (1949, Mark Robson)

Champion is a boxing picture. It ends with a big fight, as boxing pictures are wont to do. However, as the fight starts and the film cuts between all the people Kirk Douglas’s Champion has wrong, the film isn’t asking the viewer to root for the protagonist. Douglas is a bad guy. The entire third act is about how Douglas is a bad guy. He’s an even worse guy than the film’s been establishing for almost the entire runtime.

Except it’s a boxing picture. And, at some point during that big, final fight, without the film even doing anything to make Douglas sympathetic, he gets to be the hero again. He gets to be the champion. It’s one of the film’s most successful moments, thanks to director Robson, photographer Franz Planer, editor Harry W. Gerstad, and Douglas.

Unfortunately, it can’t save the film, which meanders through most of the third act after a disappointing second. Robson and screenwriter Carl Foreman are able to keep up some energy as Douglas fights his way to the top–after romancing, marrying, and abandoning Ruth Roman–but eventually it runs out of steam. There’s a hint at a love triangle between Douglas, Marilyn Maxwell, and Lola Albright. Instead, there are some decent scenes to avoid having to pursue that storyline. Almost everything in the second half of the film seems like a contrivance to position the film. Nothing Douglas does has any weight or even consequence.

Some of the problem are the players in the second half. Arthur Kennedy is his brother. Kennedy, walking with a cane, is the weaker one. He spends some time as Douglas’s conscience, but as the film goes on, gets less and less to do. Foreman’s script is interested in tearing away Douglas’s conscience–maybe even Douglas’s humanity; it just does so with some thin characters. Maxwell’s just a groupie, even though she shows business acumen. Albright’s the wife of Douglas’s manager (Luis Van Rooten in a thankless cuckold role); she starts with some depth, but then loses it due to Douglas’s animal magnetism.

And Douglas is fantastic, even when it’s obvious his ego’s in the way. He gets a monologue at the end, which Robson doesn’t know how to integrate into the rest of the film, though he and Planer do a fine enough job shooting it. Great editing again from Gerstad, who also gets to do a couple fantastic montage sequences. But Douglas is a despicable (and worse), utterly compelling protagonist. During the final fight, as it becomes clear he’s going to get the sympathy, warranted or not, requested or not, I actually resented the film a little. It’s so effectively made, it knowingly overrides the script’s intention.

Then Douglas has his well-acted but utterly misplaced monologue and all the problems of the third act catch up during the lull and it goes out on a forced note.

Fine support from Kennedy, Roman, and Albright. Maxwell just doesn’t get enough to do. Paul Stewart is great as Douglas’s trainer; Robson even lets him move the present action along three years with a voiceover in the montage sequence. It’s great stuff.

Dimitri Tiomkin’s music gets to be a little much at time, but it’s always accompanying technical success so it gets a pass for the most part. Maybe if the theme weren’t so cloying.

Champion’s superbly acted, superbly made. It’s just not superbly written. Something–Douglas’s ego, Foreman’s plotting–got in the way.



Directed by Mark Robson; screenplay by Carl Foreman, based on a story by Ring Lardner; director of photography, Franz Planer; edited by Harry W. Gerstad; music by Dimitri Tiomkin; production designer, Rudolph Sternad; produced by Stanley Kramer; released by United Artists.

Starring Kirk Douglas (Midge Kelly), Arthur Kennedy (Connie Kelly), Paul Stewart (Tommy Haley), Ruth Roman (Emma Bryce), Marilyn Maxwell (Grace Diamond), Lola Albright (Palmer Harris), Luis Van Rooten (Jerry Harris), Harry Shannon (Lew Bryce), John Daheim (Johnny Dunne) and Esther Howard (Mrs. Kelly).



Journey Into Fear (1943, Norman Foster)

Journey Into Fear has a number of insignificant problems, a couple significant ones, and one major one. The major one is Foster’s direction. It’s not bad, it makes good use of the sets, it even uses some of the supporting cast well, but it’s not frightening, it’s not exciting. Journey Into Fear, not just because of the title, has to be frightening, it has to be. And it’s not. Foster shoots too much of Fear like a melodrama–albeit a quirky one–and his crew does the same. There’s nothing foreboding in Roy Webb’s score, not even when Fear finally gets exciting at the end, and Karl Struss’s photography’s a little flat. Competent, but flat. And it doesn’t utilize the sets well.

The film runs just under seventy minutes, which wrongly implies a spry pace. Instead, there’s an awkward opening with American munitions expert Joseph Cotten (who also wrote the screenplay) in danger in Turkey. His wife–a wasted, but still momentarily wonderful Ruth Warrick–knows little to nothing about it. Cotten’s been hanging out with a bad influence–Everett Sloane in a fun smaller part–and ends up in protective custody. Orson Welles’s the cop. He has a good time chewing the scenery as an action hero. So, a bunch of good performances in an awkwardly paced first act, which has little bearing on the rest of the film. Sure, Welles tells Cotten who’s after him, but it doesn’t really matter. They could have any motive, the point is the, you know, Fear.

Most of the film takes place on a freighter; Cotten’s smuggling himself to safety. There are a bunch of eclectic passengers, there’s a flirtation interest for Cotten, there’s presumably danger to Cotten. Dolores del Rio is the flirtation interest. There’s a significant portion of the film where it could just be an unfunny comedy of errors–del Rio’s business parter, Jack Durant, thinks Cotten wants to marry her–because there’s not even a threat to Cotten’s wellbeing. He’s just an inconvenienced tourist.

All the eclectic passengers are good–Eustace Wyatt, Agnes Moorehead, Frank Readick, Edgar Barrier–and Cotten, as screenwriter, does give each of them a little to do but it’s not enough. Moorehead and Readick are this hilarious married couple–Fear actually would’ve been better with someone who could appreciate the humor better as well–only neither gets enough to do. Especially Moorehead, who Foster introduces in long shot no less.

The third act seems like it might save the film, especially once there’s an action sequence. Only then it slips again. Journey Into Fear is disappointing given the cast–given it reunites Cotten and Welles (though they’re clearly having a great time together), given it’s a Welles production, given everything. Foster just never finds the right pace for the film, never the right tone. It’s a shame.



Directed by Norman Foster; screenplay by Joseph Cotten, based on the novel by Eric Ambler; director of photography, Karl Struss; edited by Mark Robson; music by Roy Webb; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Joseph Cotten (Howard Graham), Orson Welles (Colonel Haki), Dolores del Rio (Josette Martel), Ruth Warrick (Mrs. Stephanie Graham), Jack Durant (Gogo Martel), Eustace Wyatt (Prof. Haller), Everett Sloane (Kopeikin), Agnes Moorehead (Mrs. Mathews), Frank Readick (Matthews), Edgar Barrier (Kuvetli) and Jack Moss (Peter Banat).



Series | Superman (1978-1983, 1987, 2006)

The Superman franchise started alongside, for the most part, the culturally redefining Star Wars and–sort of–Indiana Jones. But it had little in common with those franchises. It had a big studio feel to it. Superman is the culmination of the American epic. It just happened to coincide with the rise of Spielberg, who never makes the American epic, but managed to replace them.

Superman (1978). ★★★★ D: Richard Donner
Superman (1978). ★★★★ D: Richard Donner

The first Superman captures the mythology of the movies. It’s kind of like The Sting version of Superman. There’s an innocent gee whiz attitude, but also a starker, cynical one. It asks for a lot of magic, usually with Christopher Reeve’s grin and Margot Kidder’s innocent smile. Donner plays with the iconography of the characters, not so much in their “super” roles, but their human ones. It’s a very interesting way to develop a property too, because it had very little to do with the comic book and everything to do with the brand.

Superman II (1980). ★★★ D: Richard Lester
Superman II (1980). ★★★ D: Richard Lester

Superman II had a much more British feel; it feels like a Bond movie of the era or even the second Muppet movie. It feels British. It’s also pretty darn good; sure, there are a lot of big plot problems but it’s just good enough to forgive them. Lester goes for a lot of big action in the film; it has a very different understanding of special effects than the first film. The gee whiz is now itself cynical. Still, it’s got wonderful work from Reeve and Kidder.

Superman III (1983). ★ D: Richard Lester
Superman III (1983). ★ D: Richard Lester

And then there’s Superman III, which is Lester unbound from any Donner material. It’s a bad amalgamation of a Richard Pryor movie–not a good one–with a Superman sequel. No one gets enough to do, definitely not Pryor, not Reeve, not Kidder. Reeve actually gets the most to do because Kidder’s gone for most of the picture; Annette O’Toole’s the love interest. She’s great. It stinks she wasn’t back for IV because she and Kidder would’ve had great rapport.

Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987). ⓏⒺⓇⓄ D: Sidney J. Furie
Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987). ⓏⒺⓇⓄ D: Sidney J. Furie

Superman IV, of course, is a worse film than III and an embarrassment, technically speaking, to the franchise itself. And I feel like I’m more forgiving of it than most people. It’s just a crappy Cannon movie, often incompetent. However, there’s good acting from Reeve and Kidder, against the odds, and Gene Hackman’s awesome.

Hackman, Reeve, Kidder. Everyone else from the first two movies. The casting is perfect not because they’re perfect personifications of the comic book characters, but because they’re perfect characters. You want to spend time with Ned Beatty. You’re happy when he gets a scene again. It’s a studio picture, no question about it.

Superman (1978); director's cut. ★★★★ D: Richard Donner
Superman (1978); director’s cut. ★★★★ D: Richard Donner
Superman II (1980); restored international cut. ★ D: Richard Lester
Superman II (1980); restored international cut. ★ D: Richard Lester
Superman II (1980); Richard Donner cut. ★ D: Richard Donner
Superman II (1980); Richard Donner cut. ★ D: Richard Donner

There have been a number of alternate cuts–starting with the infamous Superman: The Movie TV cut, which you could buy at a con for thirty bucks on crappy VHS. Donner’s done a director’s cut. He doesn’t break it, but he doesn’t improve it. Donner doesn’t do well with director’s cuts. Superman II, of course, had an infamous history. Supposedly there was more Donner footage and Warner wasn’t letting us see it–there’s the Geoffrey Unsworth memoriam on the first film, yet he’s the cinematographer on the second–what wasn’t Warner letting us see! And then the Internet happened and fans put together the Restored International Cut back when fan restorations were a thing. It’s interesting; not good, but interesting. Warner got around to bringing Donner in to cut together his own director’s cut, which is worse than the Restored International Cut because of Donner’s ego. The frustrating thing about Superman II is no one doing a cut is doing it to make the film better, just to make it longer or their own. It’s a shame. They should’ve let Tom Mankiewicz do a cut in addition to Donner.

There are mild alternate cuts of Superman III and Superman IV circulating unofficially, but none promise major changes. The also infamous Superman IV–all of the films have infamous alternate cuts except the third one–anyway, the longer Quest for Peace cut is apparently gone. Bummer.

Superman Returns (2006). ★★½ D: Bryan Singer
Superman Returns (2006). ★★½ D: Bryan Singer

So, fast forward a number of years and Warner is putting together another studio Superman picture. The resulting Superman Returns strictly followed the continuity of the original series. But only the first two movies and with questionable memory. Returns was special effects spectacular in a way most movies don’t have the patience to be anymore. But it can’t overcome the script problems or the acting ones. Bryan Singer doesn’t have any patience and it shows. Enthusiasm, ambition, but no patience.

Superman Returns didn’t make enough money for the studio and so Warner went ahead with a new one after a seven year break. Since the release of the Superman: The Movie DVD in the late nineties, the film’s enjoyed a bit of renewed appreciation. On one hand, should it be enjoying this particular kind of renewed appreciation, fueled by fan enthusiasm and then happening to spill over thanks to interest in the DVD and subsequent blu-ray formats? Wouldn’t it be purer if Christopher Reeve finally got his due? Or Gene Hackman? On the other hand, Superman: The Movie was unappreciated for almost twenty years, so why not.

Perry Mason: The Case of the Lady in the Lake (1988, Ron Satlof)

There are many things wrong with Perry Mason: The Case of the Lady in the Lake, starting with the title being a little long followed by the first red herring in the movie, which is in its first scene. Then the next red herring is in the second scene and so on and so on. Actually, I don’t think I really noticed it as the movie was playing out because so much else is bad about it, but the way screenwriter Shel Willens perturbs the plot is something awful. It’s too functional and too dismissive. Lady’s script is impatient, which is simultaneously good and bad.

It’s good because so much of the acting in the movie is terrible. David Hasselhoff, John Beck, Doran Clark, John Ireland, and Liane Langland are all bad. I even wanted to cut Beck some slack and it’s just not possible. He’s just bad. Hasselhoff’s terrible and he’s trying, which makes it even worse. Doran Clark’s weak. John Ireland’s weak but it doesn’t matter because he disappears. He’s just there to bring Raymond Burr into the story.

As for Burr, he’s great. It’s a terrible courtroom sequence in this one but Burr plays the hell out of it. Even David Ogden Stiers gets going as the district attorney. For some reason, even though the script is bad, it gave its capable actors opportunities. Of course, poor Barbara Hale gets jack to do in this one. Except to solve the case for Burr and set William Katt up on a blind date. And Katt’s pretty good. He’s better than he’s been in the last few Mason movies anyway.

So what else is wrong with it? The direction. Satlof does a bad job. He never establishes a tone–it’s even comical when Katt finds himself in trouble, if only because of Dick DeBenedictis’s weird score–and he’s crap with the actors. Really bad photography from Arch Bryant this time out; he’s shot the entire series and I’ve never mentioned him before because he’s fine. Only not here. It’s like Lady is cursed.

There’s some decent location shooting and some of the action sequences might work if it weren’t for Satlof’s quirky tone.

Oh, and George DelHoyo is fine. He plays Hasselhoff’s scumbag brother. Terrence Evans is good as the sheriff, but only because he’s clearly not taking it too seriously.

The only standout (who knew *Lake* could have one) is Audra Lindley. She’s excellent. She’s so much better than almost everyone else in the Lake; she understands this bad of a script requires an actor to bring their own dignity to the part, because it’s not coming from the script, it’s not coming from the director.

Anyway, Lady in the Lake is quite bad, but the regulars are professional enough to muddle through it.



Directed by Ron Satlof; teleplay by Shel Willens, based on characters created by Erle Stanley Gardner; director of photography, Arch Bryant; edited by David Solomon; music by Dick DeBenedictis; produced by Peter Katz; aired by the National Broadcasting Company.

Starring Raymond Burr (Perry Mason), Barbara Hale (Della Street), William Katt (Paul Drake Jr.), Doran Clark (Sara Wingate-Travis), David Hasselhoff (Billy Travis), John Ireland (Walter), Liane Langland (Lisa Blake), John Beck (Doug Vickers), Audra Lindley (Mrs. Chaney), George DelHoyo (Frank Travis), Darrell Larson (Skip Wingate), Terrence Evans (Sheriff Ed Prine) and David Ogden Stiers (D.A. Michael Reston).


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