Thursday, May 29, 2014

Death in Small Doses (1957, Joseph M. Newman)

Joseph M. Newman's Death in Small Doses peaks with its great title and sensationalist poster art (illustrated above) and, from there, is never as fun as it should be given its basic elements: truckers, illicit "thrill pills," and the open road.

The effective title sequence shows a delirious trucker swerving all over a country road and trying to pop some amphetamine pills, before finally crashing and burning in most dramatic fashion.  Responding to this incident, which is part of an epidemic of "bootleg bennies" causing havoc in the trucking industry, is square-jawed federal agent Peter Graves, who delivers one of the all-time painfully stiff performances.  The character is as wooden as the performance, so much so that I can't imagine a viewer who doesn't root for someone to successfully slip him a benny at some point in the film. He poses as a trucker and makes his way to the rooming house of widow Mala Powers, whose husband was the driver killed in the film's opening.

Mink's always in the action.
Down the hall is wild man Chuck Connors, whose name here is one of the screenplay's best inventions: "Mink Reynolds."  Connors is constantly in motion, being obnoxiously boisterous and grabby, playing jazz records too loud, looking to party and get crazy, and, above all, get his hands on some more of those beautiful white bennies. But, he's not only in it for himself; he recognizes fellow driver "Tom" (Graves) as someone who needs some loosening up and, like a good friend, tries to give him the same experience.  You don't need me to tell you how that goes.

It's too bad the film never really deviates at all from its straight-shooting 1950s B-movie path; it's predictably, though still annoyingly, moralistic and judgmental in its attitude towards truckers like Mink who go off the reservation and threaten '50s normalcy.  He's balanced a bit by Graves' tortured, older driving partner Wally (Roy Engel) who gives voice to the universal plight of the tired, overworked trucker who turns to "benny" to give him the needed pep to make it through one more night on the road.

The film is best when Connors is on screen, of course, and when potential lovers Graves and Powers are together, as it is not entirely clear what each character's motivations are with regards to the other. It's the one aspect of the film with an air of ambiguity and unpredictability, qualities that are in too short supply in this programmer, which is not brisk enough even at only 79 minutes.

The Warner Archive disc is marketed as part of the Collection's "Film Noir" brand, but there's really nothing more to that than marketing. The disc is feature-less (not that it cries out for any) and A/V quality is by no means remarkable, but it's 16x9 and that's the main thing.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Under Eighteen (1931, Archie Mayo)

A year after reaching stardom for playing Trilby to John Barrymore's Svengali in Archie Mayo's Svengali, young Marian Marsh played opposite the Barrymore-like Warren William in Mayo's Under Eighteen.  Made in 1931 and premiering in late December of that year, the latter film is nonetheless sometimes listed as a 1932 film, and is notable for the fact that Marsh likely was under 18--or had just turned 18--at the time of filming.  It's very much a Depression-set melodrama, with the happy opening scene (the wedding of Anita Page and Norman Foster, who also appeared in Skyscraper Souls, though not as a couple) occurring pre-1929 Crash and the (mostly) sobering rest of the film, following about two years later.

Though described as "light," in this contemporary review, I'd say it more accurate to characterize the film as a serious-minded dramatic slice of life piece, save for its patently artificial happy ending. The credited writers are Frank Mitchell Dazey (story, "The Sky Life"), Agnes Christine Johnston (story), and Charles Kenyon.
Marsh is never less than captivating as Margie Evans, a seamstress in a fancy department store who shares a tenement apartment with her widowed mother and goes out with delivery truck driver Regis Toomey, good as Grant Withers' ill-fated pal in the previous year's Other Men's Women, but a little hard to take here.  The aforementioned William doesn't have a lot of screen time, but the scenes at his palatial penthouse apartment, complete with indoor pool, are perhaps the highlights of the film. Watch for the jaw-dropping moment when a passel of young women jump into said pool to grab the jewels that a jilted rich guy has just dropped into the deep end.

Another moment that sticks with me (and, surely, many other viewers): William lingers on the sight of Marsh cooling off--unaware of his attentions--after modeling a fur coat for his girlfriend (Claire Dodd).
The most painful scenes are the verbal and sometimes physical jousts between out-of-work pool hustler husband Foster and his frustrated wife (Page); the frankness of these scenes, which demonstrates the ugliness that so commonly upsets domestic bliss, would be sorely missed in post-Code American cinema.

The almost certainly studio-mandated tacked-on ending is so over-the-top in the fairy tale sense that I have to believe that Mayo and his collaborators were taking the piss out of the studio and the production code office when they filmed it.

In the supporting cast are Claire Dodd in her usual role as the other woman, Italian-born Paul Porcasi as Francois, the owner of the classy boutique that employs Marsh, uncredited Emma Dunn as Margie's mother, and Murray Kinnell, who carries on the tradition of well-cast and well-written butler parts in pre-Code films.

This was an early release from the Warner Archive and the print used for the DVD is in pretty rough, unrestored shape, but it's nonetheless good to have this vital piece of pre-Code history readily available on physical media.

I've once again borrowed some priceless imagery from here.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Our Time (1974, Peter Hyams)

Coming out in 1974, a year after the monumental Roe v. Wade decision, Peter Hyams' Our Time, with its 1950s boarding-school girls grappling with teen pregnancy and illicit abortion, may as well have been set on a different planet.  There was criticism (here and here, and surely in other places) rooted in the idea that the film was cheaply nostalgic and overly maudlin; looking at the film 40 years later, I didn't get the sense that the filmmakers were looking back whimsically at the '50s nor that they used exploitative tactics to elicit tears or other such strong emotions.  While Hyams, writer Jane C. Stanton, and producer Richard A. Roth (the producer behind the massively successful Summer of '42, a key antecedent for Our Time, and Hyams' later film Outland) were for the most part excoriated by contemporary critics, my view is that time has been kind to the film and it stands as a dramatically potent and sensitive coming-of-age tragedy. 

Just a few years after making her screen debut in To Find a Man, which dealt with an unwanted teen pregnancy and abortion, Pamela Sue Martin returned to this subject matter in Our Time.  Martin is top-billed as Abby, a senior at a strict, upscale all-girls boarding school in Massachusetts in love with Parker Stevenson (a student at a neighboring boarding school).  Martin is excellent, but it's her co-star Betsy Slade, as Abby's roommate and best pal Muffy, who really blew me away and whose performance continues to haunt me.  That Slade (who was De Palma's original choice for the title role in Carrie) disappeared from big and small screens less than a decade after Our Time, probably contributes to this "haunting" quality.  She is the sister of Mink Stole, a key member of the John Waters stock company, but other than that bit of trivia and the Carrie footnote, there is very little about Slade in the public sphere.  It's a shame her career ended so soon because she's a unique and mesmerizing onscreen presence and imbues her character with a mixture of wisdom, naiveté, sweetness, and nerdiness that I found quite beguiling and, ultimately, heartbreaking.  

The scenes of beautiful couple Stevenson and Martin making plans to consummate their love don't break much new ground and are not especially interesting, but Slade's scenes with the gawky boy (George O'Hanlon Jr.) who loves her and, later, with a well-intentioned and empathetic med student / abortionist (Robert Walden) are special; they are painfully real moments, beautifully realized by Slade and her co-stars.  And, although they apparently did not get along at all in real life (check out this interview with Martin, Stevenson, and Larry Karaszewski), the "friends till the end" bond between Martin and Slade is touchingly and convincingly portrayed, and the shattering final scenes are well-earned by the players and filmmakers.  Our Time ranks highly, for me, with other superb coming-of-age tales from the period such as the aforementioned To Find a Man and Jeremy, which manage to strike a delicate balance between earnestness, sentimentality, "realness," charm, and provocativeness; they each contain certain transcendent moments that never fail to move me to some combination of tears and reflection.

Michel Legrand was the go-to guy when it came to lush, delicate scores for romantic teen dramas in this period, such as Summer of '42, Ode to Billy Joe, and Breezy, and the maestro adds to his illustrious discography with his gorgeous main theme for Our Time.

In the supporting cast, are the late Debralee Scott and Nora Heflin as schoolmates of the two leads and Jerry Hardin as a chaperone at the school dance.  Heflin and Hardin would appear together a few years later in Obscure One-Sheet all-time favorite Chilly Scenes of Winter.