Commies at the Greasy Spoon Diner

The Psychotronic Video Guide calls it “One of the oddest movies of the fifties,” Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide deems it a “trash classic,” and any movie buff who has ever seen it will probably concur that Shack Out on 101 (1955) is easily the nuttiest B-movie to emerge in the Cold War era when paranoia over communist infiltration provided Hollywood with a new type of villain.   Continue reading

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For the Boys

Between 1941 and 1945 as World War II engulfed the world most major studios in Hollywood demonstrated their patriotism by producing numerous flag-waving musicals in support of the troops and to raise money for the war effort. Warner Bros. was represented by This is the Army (1943), Thank Your Lucky Stars (1943) and Hollywood Canteen (1944); Paramount served up Star Spangled Rhythm (1942) and Here Come the Waves (1944); Universal had a major hit with Buck Privates (1941) starring Abbott & Costello and The Andrew Sisters; 20th-Century-Fox unveiled the mind-warping visual excess of Busby Berkeley’s The Gangs All Here (1943) and MGM brought their signature gloss and glamor to Thousands Cheer (1943) and Anchors Aweigh (1945). But probably one of the biggest extravaganzas of all in terms of star cameos and musical guests was Stage Door Canteen (1943), released by United Artists.   Continue reading

Vampire Machine

First, let me get this out of the way. The Bloodstained Lawn (Italian title: Il Prato macchiato di Rosso, 1973) is a haphazard mash-up of a genre film, but an entertaining one for Eurotrash completists. The English language title suggests it might be a giallo or a horror film or even a poliziotteschi (crime drama). Actually, it has some elements of those with some sci-fi flavoring added. The central premise involves a form of vampirism which is a complete departure from the old school mythology of Bram Stoker’s Dracula and much closer to the metaphorical horrors of Alain Jessua’s Shock Treatment (French title: Traitement de Choc, 1973) and Rod Hardy’s Thirst (1979). Oddly enough, director Riccardo Ghione seems much less interested in playing up the horrific aspects of the story than depicting bourgeois decadence and the exploitation of the disenfranchised as a quasi-political fantasy. Continue reading

Himansu Rai’s 1929 Indian Epic

At the 23rd San Francisco Silent Film Festival (May 30-June 3, 2018), the Castro Theater played host to a diverse program of silent era masterpieces accompanied by live music, performed by either solo musicians, small ensembles or orchestras. Some of the new restorations screened included Ernst Lubitsch’s Rosita (1923) starring Mary Pickford, Buster Keaton’s Battling Butler (1926), the 1928 version of The Man Who Laughs with Conrad Veidt and a 1929 German version of The Hound of the Baskervilles, directed by Richard Oswald. As always, the festival also unveils several lesser known titles and rarities such as a magnificent new restoration of Prapancha Pash (aka A Throw of Dice), a 1929 Indian epic produced by Himansu Rai and directed by German filmmaker Franz Osten. A key pioneer effort from the early silent years of Indian cinema, A Throw of Dice holds up beautifully after almost ninety years with its exotic mix of adventure, romance, pageantry and sensuality. And it is an excellent entry point for any silent film beginner. Continue reading

Czech Mates

Sylva Koscina and Dirk Bogarde star in Agent 8 3/4 (aka Hot Enough for June, 1964), directed by Ralph Thomas.

Not all of the spy thrillers that followed in the wake of the James Bond craze, which began in 1962 with Dr. No, were pale imitations or grade B action-adventure fare. There were exceptions in this burgeoning genre and one of the best was Agent 8 ¾ (1964, aka Hot Enough for June). Instead of relying on high tech gadgetry, special effects and slam bang action sequences, this British import took a droll, tongue-in-cheek approach to the spy genre and had fun parodying the politics of the Cold War era in its tale of an aspiring novelist being used by British Intelligence as a pawn in their spy games with Communist foes in Prague.  Continue reading

Aline MacMahon in Heat Lightning

Publicity portrait of Aline MacMahon in the 1930s.

Most classic movie fans know Aline MacMahon as the wise-cracking Trixie in Gold Diggers of 1933, the devoted wife of Guy Kibbee in William Keighley’s film version of Babbitt (1934) or the victimized heiress in George B. Seitz’s Kind Lady (1935). These were stand-out roles but she was usually relegated to supporting parts, especially during her contract years at Warners Bros. With her Irish/Russian ancestry, MacMahon was not a conventional leading lady but she had an offbeat beauty that was both soulful and melancholy. These qualities, plus a steely toughness and dry sense of humor, make her performance in Heat Lightning (1934) particularly memorable. It also marked her first film in a leading role after playing character parts in 12 movies.   Continue reading

Dusan Makavejev for Beginners

How to describe this blast of creative anarchy from 1965? Fascinating and engaging on so many levels, Man is Not a Bird (aka Covek nije tica, 1965) could be seen as a political parable or a social satire or an offbeat romantic drama or an attempt to merge documentary and fiction in some new form of Eastern European neorealism. Continue reading