One Crowded Night (1940, Irving Reis)

One Crowded Night opens strong enough–a Mojave desert motel and lunch counter, run by a family with a past, with employees with romantic woes. It’s an RKO B-picture, as the most recognizable people in the cast are bit players from bigger films. It’s filmed on location (at the motel) and it starts centered around Anne Revere’s character, which gets it that “strong enough” comment. Revere plays a woman whose husband’s in prison and she’s dropped out from her former life. At first, it sounds like he did it, then we find out he was framed. Once I heard it was an unjust imprisonment, I knew Crowded Night was going to get into trouble, but she’s real good anyway. Unfortunately, she doesn’t remain the focus… especially not after the husband shows up.

If it had been about the women, Crowded Night could have been excellent. All of the female actors are good, with Revere and Billie Seward standing out. Seward’s particularly exceptional. Crowded Night was one of her last films, after a number of Westerns, and it’s worth seeing just for her performance. Another reason it should have concentrated on the women is the men. None of the male actors are good, only a couple are mediocre–though Steve Pendleton approaches having a good scene–and the two most important, Charles Lang and Paul Guilfoyle, are terrible.

The film’s constructed to solve a problem–it’s a sixty-eight minute deus ex machina, in fact–and all the added complications take away from what works. Oddly, the film was never predictable past the unbelievably fortuitous set-up. Characters remained in peril throughout, making for a tense last ten minutes. The director, Irving Reis, did go on to bigger films, which is no surprise, since much of One Crowded Night is well-directed. At first I thought it wasn’t, then I realized it’s just the editing. The film has the worst cuts between shots I’ve ever seen. They’re eyesores and until I caught on, I blamed it all on Reis. Actually, the bad taste from the edits was carrying over into his good work.

So, for a sixty-eight minute B-picture, One Crowded Night is fine. Seward and Revere make up for the film’s acting and writing deficiencies and Reis is just a bonus.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Irving Reis; screenplay by Ben Collins and Arnaud d’Usseau, based on a story by Ben Holmes; director of photography, J. Roy Hunt; edited by Theron Warth; produced by Cliff Reid; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Billie Seward (Gladys), William Haade (Joe Miller), Charles Lang (Fred Matson), Pamela Blake (Ruth Matson), J.M. Kerrigan (Brother ‘Doc’ Joseph), Paul Guilfoyle (Jim Andrews), Anne Revere (Mae Andrews), Gale Storm (Annie Mathews), Dick Hogan (Vince Sanders), George Watts (Pa Mathews), Emma Dunn (Ma Mathews), Don Costello (Lefty), Steve Pendleton (Mat Denlen), Casey Johnson (Bobby Andrews), Harry Shannon (Detective Lt. McDermott) and Ferris Taylor (Detective Sgt. Lansing).


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Blondie (1938, Frank R. Strayer)

When I was in middle school, I read most of the comic strips in the newspaper, Blondie being one of them. I remember seeing, in the TV listings around the same time (probably a little later), some station running a bunch of Blondie movies at five o’clock in the morning. I missed taping them, but they’ve since shown up on DVD (some of them–I guess the series has twenty-seven entries). This first film, which I wasn’t expecting much from, is actually fairly good. There are a number of problems, the most damaging being the kid. First–as a relatively modern reader of the Blondie strip, I wasn’t aware of its classical content–is the name: Baby Dumpling. I’m not sure I ever got over it, but the silliness dulled as the movie went on. However, the kid playing the kid, Larry Simms, comes off like a little shithead, not an adorable troublemaker.

The film’s at its best when it’s out of the house and doing comic strip-sized gags. There are a number of three panel gags in the film–until the last act, most of the film is these gags, actually–and they work well for the most part. When in the house, Penny Singleton and Arthur Lake are less successful together then they are alone. For whatever reason, doing the comic strip gags doesn’t work with the two of them. When the film’s acting like its own animal, they’re all right. Lake isn’t particularly good, though he’s a decent physical comedy actor (which is why the scenes with him alone work better) and Singleton ranges in quality too, best when she’s putting up with him, which is the Blondie character’s defining trait. The film’s best scene is a quiet one, when they both check in on the baby. Watching the film, even today, one is participating in the concept–the adaptation of the Blondie comic strip, which has its own set of rules, rules a regular film does not have–and the baby checking scene really breaks free of the concept. It gives the characters real character, as opposed to the two dimensional adaptation.

The best performance in the film is Gene Lockhart, who plays a captain of industry obsessed with tinkering. In a film with so many mediocre performances, Lockhart immediately stands out as giving an excellent performance. I kept waiting for him to come back around.

As for the writing and directing… well, the writing’s all right. It’s certainly not as innocuous as I expected and I did laugh a few times. The director, Frank R. Strayer, is adequate. He’s better outside than in, but the film doesn’t offer many of those opportunities.

I wasn’t expecting much from Blondie (in fact, I was expecting to turn it off), but it’s a nice enough way to spend seventy minutes.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Frank R. Strayer; screenplay by Richard Flournoy, based on the comic strip by Chic Young; director of photography, Henry Freulich; edited by Gene Havlick; music by Leigh Harline and Ben Oakland; produced by Frank Sparks and Robert Sparks; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Penny Singleton (Blondie), Arthur Lake (Dagwood Bumstead), Larry Simms (Baby Dumpling), Gene Lockhart (C.P. Hazlip), Ann Doran (Elsie Hazlip) and Jonathan Hale (J.C. Dithers).


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Godzilla (1984, Hashimoto Koji)

On a few levels–like the one with the giant monster–Godzilla fails. On some other ones, like the production values, the acting, and the approach, it succeeds. It’s a peculiar film and it should have been better. Apparently, the Japanese film industry had some trouble in the 1970s and the Godzilla series took a nine year break. Since it was such a public return, this Godzilla became an event picture. It’s also a quintessential 1980s film (and not in a bad way). There are a handful of films, from the 1980s, dealing with metropolitan environments (Die Hard is one). It’s just an observation, not a thought-out theory , and it’s more about the feeling the films convey than any sort of sociological commentary. It’s also late and I don’t want to use the wrong word.

For the first half hour, Godzilla is going to be pretty good. There’s a good lead performance from Tanaka Ken as a reporter and the film’s structured around his discovery of a story and the revelation of Godzilla’s return (this Godzilla is a direct sequel to the original Godzilla). For that first half hour, when Godzilla’s nothing but a shadow and an outline, the film really works. Once it shows up, the film loses its footing. Instead of teasing the audience with the newly improved monster, we get the full monty and we didn’t need the full monty. We needed the tease. The Godzilla-based special effects vary in quality, but the film still manages to create a context where the giant monster isn’t trespassing. However, some of the miniature work in Godzilla is breathtaking. It’s never been this good since, maybe because they were worried about creating a miniature city to matte behind people and for people to interact with, instead of just giant monsters fighting….

Once Godzilla shows up, the film–which had established itself as mildly political already, the Prime Minister is a protagonist–loses the good character stuff it was doing. One character is actually shipped away, just because there’s nothing for him to do between montages of military equipment preparing for Godzilla. The film bounces back at the end, when the characters get stuck in a building Godzilla’s knocking around. The film stays with them instead of centering on Godzilla and there are some great destroyed city sets for them to run around on.

The film reminds me–with its problems–a lot of Behemoth, because there’s an attempt to do something with the film, then the need to satisfy audience expectations. Godzilla is a boring film and it needed to be longer and more boring. It needed fifteen minutes of scientific mumbo-jumbo and some more scenes with people walking through Tokyo at night. This music in this film, besides the song at the end–a song, in English, saying goodbye to Godzilla–is some of the more effective scoring I’ve heard. It does a lot of work for the film. Sets mood for characters, sets up story changes, all sorts of good stuff.

I usually consider Godzilla films a guilty pleasure (and preface any post with that disclaimer), but Godzilla doesn’t fit that categorization. It just works too differently to scratch that itch and instead it scratches one I didn’t know I had.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Hashimoto Koji; screenplay by Nagahara Shuichi, based on a story by Tanaka Tomoyuki; director of photography, Hara Kazutami; edited by Kuroiwa Yoshitami; music by Koroku Reijiro; production designer, Sakuragi Akira; produced by Hayashi Norio and Kanazawa Kiyomi; released by Toho Company Ltd.

Starring Tanaka Ken (Maki Goro), Sawaguchi Yasuko (Okumura Naoko), Natsuki Yosuke (Dr. Hayashida), Kobayashi Keiju (Prime Minister Mitamura), Takuma Shin (Okumura Hiroshi), Ozawa Eitaro (Kanzaki), Koizumi Hiroshi (Minami), Suzuki Mizuho (Emori), Naito Taketoshi (Takegami), Orimoto Junkichi (Director-General of the Defense Agency), Sato Kei (Gondo), Takeda Tetsuya (Homeless Man), Hashimoto Sho (Captain of Super-X), Kaneko Nobuo (Isomura), Emoto Takenori (Kitagawa), Murai Kunio (Henmi) and Tajima Yoshifumi (General Hidaka).


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Shakedown (1988, James Glickenhaus)

Shakedown is such a terrible film, I’d have to go through it line by line to adequately catalog its deficiencies. The big action climax features Sam Elliot hanging onto landing gear of a jet flying over the World Trade Center, then dropping into a river. This climax–from take-off to dropping into the river to the plane landing–takes about thirty-seven seconds and features some of the worst special effects I have ever seen. So why did I sit through Shakedown? A few reasons. First, it’s Peter Weller from his “prime.” I’m not sure Weller’s any good in Shakedown, but the role’s different for him–it’s a poorly conceived character, but Weller brings some respectability to it (enough you occasionally forget the quality of the film, then the dialogue reminds you). Second, I’ll probably never see another James Glickenhaus movie and the guy has a great name. His movie’s absolute trash, but he’s got a great name. Finally, Shakedown was filmed on location in New York City. Today, there are a few blocks in Los Angeles where movies set in New York do most of their filming. Back in the 1980s, movies like Shakedown could afford to film in the city and today, eighty million dollar superhero movies cannot. Fourth–I know I said finally, but I wasn’t sure I was going to admit to this one–Shakedown is a document of an era past and, to some degree, forgotten. An era I mostly missed.

I know little about the cheap action film genre. Something happened in the late 1980s, when big companies (Warner and Fox) started producing this dreak. While I never saw that crap… well, some of the Seagal’s, but never the Van Damme’s (until he hooked up with Peter Hyams and, wow, had Hyams ever nose-dived). Had I seen Shakedown growing up, before I could just dismiss it out of hand, maybe I’d feel different about it. It’s an awful film. Its ideas are kind of scary–it’s offensive to women, blacks, intellectual whites, ignorant whites–the only real people of merit are Texans and Jimi Hendrix devotees. I certainly wouldn’t want to know anyone who thought it was good, but it is so absurd it was mildly amusing. I didn’t have a bad ninety-six minutes, especially not after the Universal logo at the beginning took up a whole minute as they tried to stretch it above the ninety minute mark.

There are also a lot of familiar faces in the film. There’s one scene with a parking lot attendant who has a very familiar voice and it turned out to be Harold Perrineau. Richard Brooks has a decent-sized supporting role and he’s actually pretty good. He probably gives the best performance in the film.

But seeing it on location was the most compelling aspect of the film. Not even movies shot in New York today use it to the extent Shakedown used it. Otherwise, it’s a piece of garbage. It’s so stupid, one would have to watch it to believe it. But, somehow, as a film, it’s not offensive. It’s not poorly made–besides those end special effects–though Glickenhaus does love low-angle shots. The writing’s awful. Maybe because it wasn’t a hit. But Weller, coming off Robocop, couldn’t find anything better to do?

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written and directed by James Glickenhaus; director of photography, John Lindley; edited by Paul Fried; music by Jonathan Elias; production designer, Charles Bennett; produced by J. Boyce Harman Jr.; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Peter Weller (Roland Dalton), Sam Elliott (Richie Marks), George Loros (Officer Varelli), Thomas G. Waites (Officer Kelly), Daryl Edwards (Dr. Watson), Jos Laniado (Ruben), Richard Brooks (Michael Jones), Blanche Baker (Gail Feinberger), Shirley Stoler (Irma), John C. McGinley (Sean Phillips) and Patricia Charbonneau (Susan Cantrell).

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