Category Archives: Columbia

Blu-Ray Review: The Crooked Web (1955).

Directed by Nathan Hertz Juran
Produced by Sam Katzman
Story & Screenplay by Lou Breslow
Cinematography: Henry Freulich
Film Editor: Edwin H. Bryant

Cast: Frank Lovejoy (Stanley Fabian), Mari Blanchard (Joanie Daniel), Richard Denning (Frank Daniel), John Mylong (Herr Koenig), Harry Lauter (Sgt. Mike Jancoweizc), Steven Ritch (Ramon ‘Ray’ Torres), Lou Merrill (Herr Schmitt)

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With some movies, you can smell the next plot point, or even the rest of the picture, a mile away. The experience is then reduced to just waiting around to see if you were right — unless you just give up on the whole thing. Then there are movies that make a point of not only zigging when you expect them to zag, but doing it so frequently you can’t possibly get ahead of them. The Crooked Web (1955) is one of those movies.

As a favor, you’re not going to get much of a synopsis out of me. Stan (Frank Lovejoy) owns a drive-in restaurant and he’s sweet on Joanie (Mari Blanchard), one of his carhops. One afternoon, Joanie’s brother Frank (Richard Denning) pulls up to say hello.

The Crooked Web makes great use of Stan’s Drive-In at the corner of Sunset and Highland in Hollywood. Giving Mark Lovejoy’s character the name Stan lets them show us all that wonderful signage. As soon as the movie was over, I hopped online to see if Stan’s was still around. Sadly, it’s not.

All these twists and turns are the work of Lou Breslow, who gets credit for both the story and screenplay. He takes this one way beyond what you expect from Sam Katzman’s unit. Breslow’s credits stretch back to the silents and he worked on pictures like W.C. Field’s masterpiece It’s A Gift (1934), Charlie Chan At The Race Track (1936), Mr. Moto Takes A Chance (1938), Shooting High with Gene Autry (1940), Blondie Goes To College (1942), Abbott & Costello In Hollywood (1945) and My Favorite Spy (1951). The Crooked Web was his last feature, though he did lots of TV.

Before trying his hand at directing, Nathan Juran was an art director — one of the gaggle of geniuses behind the Oscar-winning designs for John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley (1941). Juran directed a handful of pictures, mostly Westerns at Universal-International, before taking on The Crooked Web. He found his sweet spot in horror/sci-fi/fantasy stuff, and he’d go on to do 20 Million Miles To Earth (1957), The Seventh Voyage Of Sinbad (1958), The Brain From Planet Arous (1957) and Attack Of The 50 Foot Woman (1958). His Western Good Day For A Hanging (1958) starring Fred MacMurray is really terrific.

A picture like The Crooked Web can’t really work if its cast isn’t up to snuff. And the three leads here are top-notch — pros going about their business. Beginning with Lovejoy being head over heels for Blanchard, everybody’s believable enough to escort us from one plot twist to another. Frank Lovejoy is excellent in this one. Richard Denning was so good as a creep in both Hangman’s Knot (1952) and Creature From The Black Lagoon (1954) that I have a hard time seeing him as anything else.

I’ve always liked Mari Blanchard, especially in Rails Into Laramie (1954) and Stagecoach To Fury (1957). She’s very good here, though she was probably hired primarily for her eye-candy-ness. She had a pretty incredible life, overcoming polio as a child — look her up sometime. Her last feature was McLintock! (1963). Cancer took her in 1970.

The Crooked Web is part of Kit Parker’s Noir Archive, Volume 2 (1954-1955), a nine-movie, three-disc Blue-Ray set. It looks terrific — all nine pictures do. I’ve covered this before, but it’s worth repeating: seeing B movies like this on Blu-Ray can be a real revelation. The craft that went into these things has been obscured by washed-out TV prints and sorry-looking VHS tapes. People like cinematographer Henry Freulich certainly deserve to have their work seen in the best possible condition. And that’s exactly how you see The Crooked Web here. The movie comes highly recommended — and the Blu-Ray set, well, it’s essential.

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Filed under 1955, Columbia, DVD/Blu-ray Reviews, Kit Parker, Mari Blanchard, Nathan Juran, Richard Denning, Sam Katzman

Saturdays With Sam (Katzman) #1: Who The Hell Is Captain Africa?

Most Sam Katzman movies were seen on Saturdays (mornings and afternoons, to be exact), so it makes sense to devote the day to him.

Heading into 1955, Sam Katzman’s latest project was going to be a second The Phantom serial — Columbia’d done an excellent one starring Tom Tyler back in 1943. It was written, it was cast, it was being shot when someone at Columbia figured out they no longer had the rights to the character. Negotiations with King Features quickly got underway and they wanted more money than Sam Katzman was willing to pay. So long, Phantom.

Some rewriting, re-costuming, reshooting and re-editing took care of things. The serial’s star, John Hart, now wore a getup that look somewhat Phantom-ish, except for the weird addition of a leather aviator’s cap. This was Captain Africa. Adventures Of Captain Africa, Mighty Jungle Avenger! (1955) turned out to be Columbia and Katzman’s last jungle serial (they’d only make two more serials period), and its 15 chapters include a liberal amount of stock footage (Katzman’s SOP) from Jungle Menace (1937), The Phantom (1943) and The Desert Hawk (1944). When this was going to be an actual followup to the first Phantom serial, there was to be a lot more footage from it. There is a surprising lack of new footage in this thing, and it seems like every other chapter is a recap. Guess director Spencer Gordon Bennet did what he could under the circumstances.

It’s George Barrows as the gorilla in this one. And John Hart would go on to do Riot On The Sunset Strip (1967) for Katzman.

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Filed under 1955, Columbia, Gorilla suit guys, John Hart, Sam Katzman, Spencer Gordon Bennet

One Quick Thing.

The second volume of Kit Parker’s Noir Archive series showed up yesterday. In a year filled with really great stuff coming out on Blu-Ray, this might be my favorite so far.

Four of my favorite B directors are here: William Castle, Nathan Juran, Phil Karlson and Fred F. Sears. Some of my favorite actors, too — John Agar, Robert Blake, Mari Blanchard, Timothy Carey, Richard Denning, Faith Domergue, Vince Edwards, Beverly Garland, Brian Keith, Guy Madison, Kim Novack and more.

All nine pictures look terrific — the Columbia transfers are almost flawless. Proper reviews will follow, but I can’t recommend Noir Archives Volume 2: 1954-1956 highly enough.

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Filed under 1954, 1955, 1956, Beverly Garland, Columbia, DVD/Blu-ray News, Faith Domergue, Fred F. Sears, John Agar, Kit Parker, Mari Blanchard, Nathan Juran, Phil Karlson, Richard Denning, Sam Katzman, Timothy Carey, William Castle

Jungle Moon Men (1955).

Directed by Charles S. Gould
Produced by Sam Katzman
Written by Dwight Babcock and Jo Pagano
Cinematography​: ​Henry Freulich
Film Edit​or: ​Henry Batista

Johnny Weissmuller (Johnny Weissmuller), Jean Byron (Ellen Marsten), Helene Stanton (Oma), Bill Henry (Bob Prentice), Myron Healey (Mark Santo), Billy Curtis (Damu), Michael Granger (Nolimo), Frank Sully (Max), Ben Chapman (Marro), Kenneth L. Smith (Link), Ed Hinton (Regan), Kimba

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Nobody’s ever going to accuse Johnny Weissmuller of being a good actor, but he made plenty of entertaining movies. He chose to retire after Sam Katzman’s Jungle Jim films, 16 cheaply-made (the norm for Katzman) adventure pictures that make liberal use of stock footage, and the later syndicated TV series. Jungle Moon Men (1955) is the next-to-last Jungle Jim picture, and Weissmuller goes by his real name instead of Jungle Jim. Go figure.

In this one, Weissmuller sings on as a guide for Ellen Marston (Jean Byron), a researcher who wants to explore the Baku country — in search of the Egyptians’ secret to eternal life.

They come across the Moon Men — a pygmy tribe armed with poisonous darts, a necklace bearing Egyptian hieroglyphics and a big fat diamond, and some bad guys (Myron Healey is one of them) out to get that diamond. All this nonsense takes us to a cave where Jim/Johnny and the others meet the Baku High Priestess Oma (Helene Stanton) — who must remain in the cave to avoid the wrath of the sun god Rah. It’s rather weird, to say the least, and it’s all wrapped up in 69 minutes.

Director Charles S. Gould had a long career as an assistant director — he worked on number of the classic Universal monster movies, among other things. Jungle Moon Men is one of the few features he directed. The later Jungle Jims are a fairly ramshackle bunch, with (even) less money and attention going into making these things. Gould probably did the best he could with what he had to work with.

Jean Byron, the researcher here, is known for playing Patty Duke’s mom on The Patty Duke Show. Helene Stanton was in The Big Combo and New Orleans Uncensored (both 1955), highlights of a very short film career. She’s the mother of Dr. Drew Pinsky, the radio/reality show guy. Myron Healey made a pretty good living playing bad guy parts like this. And Billy Curtis — who’s in everything from Terror Of Tiny Town (1938) to Superman And The Mole-Men (1951) to High Plains Drifter (1973), along with a previous Jungle Jim picture, Pygmy Island (1950) — plays Damu, the leader of the Moon Men.

There’s not a lot to the Jungle Jim movies, and Jungle Moon Men is one of the lesser ones. But there’s something about these things — probably Weissmuller himself — that really appeals to me. Others must agree: calls for a DVD or Blu-Ray set of these is one of the most common wants I get around here.

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Filed under 1955, Columbia, Johnny Weissmuller, Jungle Jim, Myron Healey, Sam Katzman

Jungle Jim.

I’ve been wanting to dive into Sam Katzman’s Jungle Jim series, but have been waiting for someone to put out a set of all 16 pictures (released from 1948 to 1955) and the single-season TV show. That hasn’t happened, and the single discs are way too expensive and take up way too much shelf space.

Figure this summer is a good time to take em on, along with the Bowery Boys. First will be Johnny Weissmuller in either Cannibal Attack (1954) or Jungle Moon Men (1955), a couple of the later ones.

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Filed under Bowery Boys, Columbia, Johnny Weissmuller, Jungle Jim, Lew Landers, Monogram/Allied Artists, Sam Katzman, Spencer Gordon Bennett

Blu-Ray Review: The Miami Story (1954).

Directed by Fred F. Sears
Produced by Sam Katzman
Story and Screenplay by Robert E. Kent
Director Of Photography​: ​Henry Freulich
Film Edit​or: ​Viola Lawrence

Cast: Barry Sullivan (Mick Flagg AKA Mike Pierce), Luther Adler (Tony Brill), John Baer (Ted Delacorte), Adele Jergens (Gwen Abbott), Beverly Garland (Holly Abbott), Dan Riss (Frank Alton), Damian O’Flynn (Police Chief Martin Belman), Chris Alcaide (Robert Bishop), Gene Darcy (Johnny Loker)

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Here’s looking at a solid little noir/crime picture from producer Sam Katzman and director Fred F. Sears — The Miami Story (1954). It’s featured in Noir Archive, Volume 1 (1944-1954), a nine-movie, three-disc Blue-Ray set Kit Parker Films.

The Miami Story has ex-mobster Mick Flagg (Barry Sullivan) lured out of retirement (he’s now a farmer) to help snag some of his old “co-workers” in Miami. Flagg’s approach to his task isn’t hampered by the kinds of things cops or the Feds have to contend with, and he turns out to be very effective at stirring up the hoods. Along the way, he gets to threaten, beat up or at least talk smack to about everybody else in the cast. A couple of examples —

Teddy (John Baer): How much of this am I supposed to swallow?

Mick Flagg (Barry Sullivan): You better take a full dose of it, kid, if you wanna stay alive.

Gwen (Adele Jergens): Don’t give me that holier-than-thou stuff, Holly. You could hoof. All I could do was shake on top and wiggle on the bottom in crummy burlesque joints.

Mick Flagg (Barry Sullivan): Big sister just told you there’s no Santa Claus and you’re all beat up about it. Relax, things’ll look a lot worse tomorrow.

The picture is filled with dialogue like this. And Sullivan is terrific at delivering it, as is Adele Jergens. Jergens gives any movie a boost, and this one is no exception. Tired of playing these kinds of tawdry parts, she’d leave the picture business a few after The Miami Story. What a shame. She’s in one of my favorites, Armored Car Robbery (1950), along with Sugarfoot (1951), Abbott & Costello Meet The Invisible Man (1951) and a couple of the Blondie movies.

The performances are solid, to be sure, but I give a lot of credit for The Miami Story‘s success to Fred F. Sears and screenwriter Robert E. Kent. Sears proved himself to be a master craftsman, churning out a string of Katzman pictures like this that are far better than they probably have any right to be. Like Sears, Robert Kent worked a lot for Katzman’s unit at Columbia, churning out scripts for stuff like Fort Ti (1953), Jesse James Vs. The Daltons (1954) and The Werewolf (1956). He also came up with the story for Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome (1947). They made so many pictures, they can’t all be great, but when their best are well worth seeking out.

The Miami Story looks like a million bucks on Blu-Ray. DP Henry Freulich, another craftsman, is well-served here. It’s sharp, with nice-looking grain and solid blacks. As the only picture in the set from 1954, The Miami Story is the only title in 1.85. This movie, and the Blu-Ray collection, come highly recommended. If this becomes your gateway to the joys of Columbia B movies, you’re in for a real treat.

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Filed under 1954, Adele Jergens, Barry Sullivan, Beverly Garland, Columbia, Fred F. Sears, Kit Parker, Sam Katzman

Blu-Ray Review: Escape In The Fog (1945).

Directed by Oscar (Budd) Boetticher, Jr.
Screenplay by Aubrey Wisberg
Cinematography: George Meehan
Film Editor: Jerome Thoms

Cast: Otto Kruger (Paul Devon), Nina Foch (Eileen Carr), William Wright (Barry Malcolm), Konstantin Shayne (Schiller), Ivan Triesault (Hausmer, Schiller’s Henchman), Ernie Adams (George Smith)

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Escape In The Fog (1945) is one of the pictures featured in Noir Archive, Volume 1 (1944-1954), a nine-movie, three-disc Blue-Ray set from Mill Creek, “curated” by Kit Parker. Now folks, we all owe Mr. Parker and the gang at Mill Creek a big fat thank you, because there are two more of these wonderful sets on the way, each one offering a wealth of deep, dark, cynical, noir-y riches. Some are A pictures, but most of Bs — a ratio I like a whole lot.

The B movie units at Columbia churned out some really cool movies in the 40s and 50s, some of my all-time favorites — from noir/mystery/crime stuff like The Whistler series to Westerns like The Law Vs. Billy The Kid (1954) to horror stuff like The Devil Commands (1941). A few of the guys who directed these things went on to bigger things, such as Mr. Budd Boetticher. In Escape In The Fog, you won’t see the stylistic and thematic stuff that makes Boetticher’s later Westerns the masterworks that they are. But you will see the economy, efficiency and pacing that all his pictures benefit from, along with a real skill at building tension, something he’d put to terrific use in The Killer Is Loose (1956).

Nina Foch is a Navy nurse who has a vivid dream of a man being attacked on San Francisco’s Bay Bridge. That dream becomes a reality, she becomes involved with the guy getting pounded in her dream (William Wright) and they’re soon wrapped up in wartime espionage involving federal agents, Otto Kruger and Nazi spies. It all comes together pretty well, making for a solid 63 minutes.

Budd Boetticher’s movies remind me of Anthony Mann pictures in that the location often plays as big a role in the story as the people — Lone Pine is almost as important as Randolph Scott. There’s none of that here, but the frame totally filled with fog is quite effective — not only adding to the atmosphere, but concealing just how cheap this 12-day picture really is.

Columbia has always done a great job of keeping their material in tip-top shape, and this set, all nine movies, look fresh and crisp and sharp. Of course, some look a little better than others, but across the board they’re stunning. In spite of their often tiny budgets, the craftspeople who worked on these things made sure they looked good — and time hasn’t changed that one bit. If anything, high-definition might accentuate the incredible look of these films.

Escape In The Fog is a neat little movie. And this set is essential stuff — for fans of noir, of B moviemaking or of any of the casts and crews represented here. So, thank you Mr. Parker and the folks at Mill Creek. Looking forward to the next one!

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Filed under Budd Boetticher, Columbia, DVD/Blu-ray Reviews, Kit Parker, Mill Creek