Thursday, December 8, 2011

Killing Time with Old Movies (and Such)

Games (1967) - ** ½. I had just finished reading Hal (Duke, Tomboy) Ellson’s novelization of this Curtis Harrington thriller when it popped up on cable. It’s minor Harrington but still worth seeing Katherine Ross & James Caan in early pre-stardom roles.

Way Out West (1930) - ** ½. One of the better William Haines talkies I’ve seen about a carny huckster forced to work off a debt on a ranch. Lovely Leila Hyams co-stars with fine support from Charles Middleton, Cliff Edwards and Francis X Bushman Jr. Hyams is fondly remembered for roles in Freaks, Island of Lost Souls, & Ruggles of Red Gap, but this is the largest role I’ve seen for her. She retired in 1936 to everyone’s loss.

James Cagney was my favorite actor when I was growing up when his films played constantly on local television. So it was great to see a few of his early films that I’d only read about.

Sinner’s Holiday (1930) ** 1/ 2 is both Cagney and Joan Blondell’s film debuts and they clearly outshine stars (the doomed Grant Withers & obscure Evalyn Knapp). Cagney’s tearful confession scene with his mother is especially jarring and shows the talent to come.

Taxi! (1932) ** ½ is also a mixed bag but hotheaded Cagney keeps the contrived plot moving. Best scene: Cagney( & Loretta Young) lose a dance-off to George Raft so he slugs Raft creating a riot.

Much better is Picture Snatcher (1933) *** 1/2 , prime Cagney and a must for any Warner Bros. fan. The fast-paced plot is very loosely based on the newspaper reporter who snuck into an electrocution of husband murderer Ruth Snyder to take a picture.

The American (2010) - ****. Slow, meditative film set in Italy stars George Clooney as a hitman looking to connect. Reminds me of a cryptic 70s foreign film (Antonioni's The Passenger comes to mind). Costar Violante Placido is too stunningly beautiful for words.

The Smart Set (1928) - **. This trivial silent was William Haines’ most popular film and if you couldn’t figure out his sexual orientation from this, oy vey! His outrageously effeminate prancing and preening and mugging (as a spoiled rich polo player in pursuit of plain Alice Day) is hard to take and makes it extremely difficult to like his boorish, prissy, obnoxious character. He may have been instructed to overact (to add some needed life to lame story?), because he is much more subdued in Vidor’s Show People (1928) opposite Marion Davies.