Hot Summer Nights, 1957. 7/10

A late noir, and a rustic one at that. While honeymooning in the Ozarks Bill and Irene Partain (Leslie Nielsen and Colleen Miller) stumble upon a violent bank robbery. Bill, a reporter, seeks out the gang that’s behind the crime; finding a ring headed by local good old boy Tom Ellis (Robert J. Wilkes).

There’s also plenty of sketchy characters Oren (Jay C. Flippen), Kermit (James Best), Rosey (Sonny Chorre), and Elly (Paul Richards). Plus Deputy Lou Follett (Edward Andrews), Tom’s wife Ruth (Marianne Stewart), and mob girl Hazel (Leslie Parrish).

We start with an abduction of sorts, a hood taking an older guy ‘for a ride.’ In town, the hoods back their station wagon into an alley. Some sort of break-in is in the works. Ok, they’re going to torch a back door to soften it up, then pry it open. Yep, it’s a bank; and the old guy’s there because he knows the safe combination.

The banker activates an alarm. So, the hoods, after dispatching him, are quickly off and running. Swatching cars, they continue, to Chatsburg. A motorcycle cop pulls into a gas station/general store. Same spot that Bill and Irene have stopped at. Both sets of folks discuss the Ellis gang’s caper.

Bill drives back to the cabin they’re staying at. Irene’s very much in love–with this big lug? He wants to split, sensing danger; he doesn’t explain, other than he reiterates that he’s out of a job. So, he’s antsy, preoccupied. They take the road to Chatsburg. In a juke joint, they look out of place. Strangely, he buys a round for the bar; what’s he really up to? Kermit introduces himself.

Some honeymoon. Bill asks Kermit about a Ruth Childers (she’s someone in the know about malefeasence in town). Kermit, and everyone else, thinks he’s too nosy, and beats him up. The deputy comes in, which stops it. Bill and Irene sit down with him. Predictably, he asks what they’re doing in town.

Bill explains that he’s looking for a story; in this “bitter town” (the deputy’s term). The lawman agrees to take him too see this Ruth. “Can’t breathe in this town” Bill says, accurately. I just can’t see why he won’t just go along with his wife’s plaintive wishes to “do what lovers do.” She’s probably wishing they’d waited a bit before marrying.

He’s just got this mania–aren’t there other stories to dig up? He’s got to leave his wife alone in a hotel on their honeymoon, while he plays detective with some hoodlums. Makes plenty of nonsense. Ok, he meets Ruth; oh, he remembers her, from her mysterious past.

So, she’s last seen him at the Kansas City jail. He wrote a story “that made me famous among my friends” she says. They just chat, like old flames. He mentions Tom. Bill figures that Tom’s ‘story’ is sensational, and will jump-start his career. She’ll think about it. Is he going to level with Irene?

She asks if Ruth will help him get his job back; what Irene really wants to hear is “say that you desire me.” Man, that pesky Kermit comes calling. He shows Bill some shell casings–from the banker’s killing. There’s a sort of deal; Kermit will take Bill to Ellis, and Irene should be ok.

Ok, we’re out in the sticks, waiting for an “Indian.” Now we get Kermit’s sob-story bio. He just beat up Bill the day before; now Bill has this brotherly concern for him. Anyway, there’s Rosey (the so-called “Indian”) in the big sedan we’ve seen before, as one of the getaway cars. They blindfold him so he can’t recall the hideout’s location.

He meets Tom and the gang, including Hazel. Tom and Elly have some grudge. Elly “panics.” Bill gives his pitch about his article. Seems incredible that a wanted man would agree to do an expose on himself and his guys. Tom starts to talk, about how “loved” he is locally.

Back in town, Irene is in the hotel lobby. The deputy chats her up. “I want you to know about this town…nobody is gonna take Tom Ellis away from them.” Right. Meanwhile, Tom asks Bill if he wants to see a killing. Bill says he’s born with a “kink”; sure enough. When Tom expands on that concept, gloating, Elly can’t stand it, and shoots him.

Well, Bill got to see a killing, all right. And, halfway in, we’ve lost our antagonist. That’s original. Kermit’s done too. “Convince me!” Bleats Elly, basically demanding to know why Bill shouldn’t also be killed. Oren takes charge, and starts to dictate an ad for the Kansas City paper: basically an offer of Bill’s life for $50k. That’s clever.

What doesn’t make sense is how they expect to get away with it. Meanwhile, Irene has probably read the entire pulp novel rack at the hotel. She wants to find Ruth, so she can find Bill. Of course no one will help her–will the deputy? The bartender does tell her where the deputy lives.

Meanwhile, Rosey’s busy dumping the bodies. Hey, check this out! One of the stiff’s arms can move. Oren mails the ad to the city. At the hideout, Elly keeps pumping Bill on the timing of the ad’s appearance. In KC, the editor knows he has to play along (they can only narrow down the postmark to one of a half dozen towns).

No one will help Irene; but, she gets a call from the paper’s editor. He tells her that Bill’s being held for ransom. He disclaims responsibility but he “will do what I can.” Very pitifully, she begs the people at the hotel for info on Ruth. Finally, one elderly lady tells her.

Oren returns to the hideout. Elly, of course, is nervous. Bill thinks “Just between you and me, I won’t get out of this thing alive. Neither will you.” Oren agrees. Bill tries to bargain with him, but Oren knows he’s got nothing to offer. Oren and are all worked up. Across town, Irene gets in Ruth’s face; y’know, that killing Bill isn’t such a good idea. Inopportunely, Kermit stumbles in, bloody “he killed Mr. Ellis, and he killed me…” That does make an impression on Ruth–Irene leaves.

Stumbling back to the hotel, she tells the clerk about Kermit’s sudden reemergence. She tries to call Bill’s (former) paper, but can’t get through. Quickly studying the want-ads, she sees that the paper is “trying to arrange financing;” i.e., the ransom money isn’t available yet, but might be. She gets a ride with the truck driver who delivers the paper.

She pumps him about Ellis, but he’s wary. I suppose she figures that the driver will lead her to Bill (obviously, the hoods get the paper). Meanwhile, back at the hideout, Elly is still going ape. But it looks like their ship is coming in.

Irene has accurately reduced the hideout’s location–to the tell-tale guy waiting in middle of the night for the iconic paper. She hustles over to the deputy’s place with the info–he promises to get help. Oren is calculating how the random money can be safely delivered. Now Irene, the deputy, and back-up are poised outside.

Well, Bill manages to turn the tables; Oren, bemused, tells him “knife? gun? what difference does it make! You don’t have the guts to kill a man.” Maybe so, but he doesn’t have to; bursting through a doorway, with Oren as Bill’s shield, the old wise hood is shot by Elly.

Bill escapes, but he’s shot in the leg; Elly is blown away by arriving cops. To tie things up, there’s a sort of Tom Ellis funeral procession/celebration on main street, very Faulknerian. The deputy sees the (finally) happy couple off. The end.

We got two major surprises in this: Tom getting knocked off, which pretty much kicks the action up a notch or two; and Kermit seemingly coming back from the dead. Both actions are plausible and highly effective–and, thanks to loose-cannon Elly–stem from the same violent scene. These are some really interesting hoods.

None of them are alike; Tom and Orel are smart and smooth, Rosey is the ‘muscle,’ inarticulate, but effective, and then, there’s Elly, who seems a complete psychopath. The women are interesting too: Hazel we really don’t get to know, but that’s kind of the point–shes a hanger-on; Ruth, though not a bad person, is resigned to some dismal fate. And, Irene, although duped by the obsessive Bill, is nonetheless loyal and sincere.

Unfortunately, the Bill/Irene relationship doesn’t really make any sense. We know nothing about them beforehand; usually that’s a good ploy, as nothing is more distracting than a long build-up sequence. The problem, hinted at earlier, is that Bill has almost no redeeming qualities. If he’s so determined to get his career back on track–why not postpone the honeymoon until he can relax?

He acts as tough as the hoods. All of this makes me think he should’ve been undercover (on assignment from the paper) to get the goods on Tom’s gang. He could fall for Ruth or something (they’re already acquainted anyway). Irene and Bill could simply be engaged; keep her on the sidelines until the ace reporter cleans up the mess.

It’s absurd to think that any spouse (especially a newlywed!) would be left in a jerkwater hotel while her unemployed husband chases around after local gangsters. That would be like the guys in Deliverance bringing their wives along so they can take pictures of the mayhem.

Either Nielsen is miscast or the script skewers his role to death. As noted, the other problem is the concept that a bunch of criminals would willingly tell their story–before they’re caught.

There’s plenty of interesting characters here (Bill excepted), a great atmosphere, and some cool twists, but the premise is too full of holes for the viewer’s willing suspension of disbelief. 7/10

Sign Of The Ram, 1948. 8.5/10

A Bette Davis role if there ever was one; but, no, it’s Susan Peter’s playing disabled matriarch Leah St. Albyns. She pretty much lords it over the household, including her husband Mallory (Alexander Knox). Set in a seaside mansion, the stage is set for some gothic turmoil.

There’s other St. Albyns–Christine (Peggy Ann Garner), Jane (Allene Roberts), and Logan (Ross Ford), and Logan’s fiancee, Catherine Woolton (Diana Douglas). Plus we’ve got Leah’s secretary, Sherida (Phyllis Thaxter), Clara (the always interesting Dame May Witty), and Dr. Simon Crowley (Ron Randell).

Like a lot of movies from this era, we start at a train station, in Cornwall. We find Logan giving Sherida a ride to the family castle. On arrival, she meets Mallory and his other children, Jane, Kate (Catherine) and Christine.

Leah meets Sherida, whom she’s to work for. Seems like it’s a big deal discovering that Leah’s in a wheelchair. Anyway, Leah tells Sherida that she writes poetry. First she says the kids aren’t hers, and then she says they are, in a way. Yes, that’s the plot, in a nutshell.

Christine goes to say goodnight to her stepmom, they think Sherida will work out ok. Mallory shows her around the next day. He tells her about what happened to his wife; she’d been crippled when their boat capsized, slammed against rocks as she was trying to rescue the kids.

Simon comes visiting; Jane obviously has something going on with him. Oh, boy, here’s Clara, who meets Sherida for the first time. Apparently, the last secretary was a wash-out. Mallory brings some gardenias into his wife–wow, they sure get huge in that greenhouse there. Instant jealousy, though, as Sherida pops in, holding one of the same blooms. So what?

Leah plays the piano and sings for the family. Then we meet Catherine, Logan’s fiancee. Clara’s babbling on, while Logan and Catherine talk outside; weirdly, he feels he has to ask Leah’s ‘permission’ to go walking with Catherine. Somebody is at her chamber door, interrupting her chain-smoking.

It’s Christine, she’s heard “funny noises.” Leah wants to send her away to boarding school–like, yuuck. Sherida and Mallory hang out in the greenhouse; when he comes back in to Leah’s room she hints about a separation. He’s stunned, but she quickly back-pedals. She “loves the whole family, perhaps too much.” Hmm. Plot in another nutshell.

Meanwhile, Jane’s getting tootled up for Simon, and for the dance they’re headed too. He comes first to see Leah, announcing that he’s going to propose to Jane. She’s not pleased; Simon basically tells her that, though she disabled, she’s not ill. They talk astrology, that old ram thing. “This nonsense doesn’t amuse me” she says.

He goes for a body blow with “you do want to keep your little band of slaves together, don’t you? Including Jane.” Yep. She changes the subject. “You’ve kept me alive, Simon.” Ok. But Stepmom tells him that Jane wants to go away; and that’s after he objects when she assumes that their marriage meant that they will live at her home.

If that’s not enough interference, she then talks to Jane; she suggests that Jane “not take him too seriously.” Jane believes her. And ducks out of her date. Now Christine comes to Leah for succor. Logan and Catherine tell everyone that they’re going to check out an old tin mine. So, exploration time–the other end of it happens to overlook the spot where the accident occurred.

That is, there’s an opening to a cliff by the sea. They see a drawing they left on the rock years ago. Switch to a picnic below the cliff with Sherida and Mallory; they discuss Jane “Leah will talk to her.” But that’s just the problem. Back together with the others, Logan and Catherine announce their engagement.

And there’s an engagement party. Jane looks a bit uncomfortable. Logan goes out to talk to her; she says “there’s something going out in this house…an undertone.” Basically, she’s upset because Simon’s not there. Now Leah shows up to bug Catherine and Logan. She just says that they shouldn’t get married “so soon.”

She says she has a “right” to interfere in their plans. Abjectly, he agrees; but Catherine isn’t buying it. Looks like the old ploy that ‘if I can’t be happy,, then no one can.’ Boldly, Catherine goes to talk to Leah the next day. Leah does a complete turn-about–go ahead and get married! Now! But, we figure there’s a surprise; Leah has researched Catherine’s background (she’s an orphan).

Of course, her detective work turns up the interesting information that Catherine’s father was insane–hey, at least he’s not related to Jack the Ripper! It should be immediately obvious that Leah’s statement lacks all credibility. “These things are not necessarily hereditary.” Of course, Leah’s already told Logan. So we’re talking a childless marriage… y’know, Leah was never able to have kids either, fair is fair.

Man, that is wicked. Right now, although we haven’t got many scenes with Mallory, he must be the ultimate victim; all the others can at least technically leave. The vicar calls with what appears to be a suicude note from Catherine. Apparently, she’s headed for that mythic cave. Jane muses to herself (no one is very bright here) that both Catherine and Simon got cold feet just after talking to Leah.

Well, we’re all set for a denouement at that cliff; the spot that’s figured decisively in the family history. Will Catherine jump to her death? Of course there’s a thunderstorm; luckily, all the able-bodied people go looking for her. So, she’s rescued. Hauntingly, Leah lurks nearby.

Around Catherine’s bedside, Jane declares that she’s with Simon, holding him. Not only that, the whole insanity-in-Catherine’s-family deal is exposed as a hoax. Clara and Leah are sitting by the fire; Mallory chases the old bag off to actually talk to Leah. He tells her that neither Jane nor Logan is likely to come home again.

She refuses to believe that–kind of an anti-climactic discussion, after all. Christine, teary-eyed, tells Leah that nothing’s been right since Sherida showed up. Christine is up to something with Leah’s pills. Ah! The old warm milk laced with…stuff. Oh, man, it’s Sherida that gets the milky death syrup.

Mallory summons Simon. Incredibly, Christine not only admits the dastardly dead, she’s adamant that it was the right thing “somebody had to do it.” Seems to me that Sherda hasn’t done much the entire movie; the ‘flirtation’ with Mallory hardly qualifies as death-deserving event. Oh, Christine is indeed contrite. Sherida lives!!

Christine’s epiphany is to go to boarding school; by now anything beats this female version of Dracula’s castle. Speaking of Leah: nothing to live for now, woe is me! So, Leah rolls out of the house, into the fog, off the cliff. She’s done. The end. No more billable hours for Simon.

This is very well done. The cast fit their roles just so. My Bette Davis comment at the beginning might not have been so wise afterall; the drama gets a lot of energy from the outwardly youthful Peters. In fact, she’s competing with her step-children; a complete narcissist, Leah lacks the excuse of old age with its mask of bitterness.

Ironically, her disability directly relates to her unselfish love of those same kids; she literally sacrificed (part of) herself for them. But they are hardly ungrateful. Nevertheless, she must feel that they owe her. They must suffer emotionally the rest of their lives just as she will suffer physically in her life.

The plan works all too well for quite a while (we don’t know exactly how long has passed since the boating accident). That’s a bit of a flaw in the movie’s premise, though; I can see Christine buying into Leah’s plan, but both Jane and Logan are mature enough to have seen through her long ago. Maybe money has something to do with it.

Still, only a fairly weak person would disbelieve their own lover in favor of a domineering stepmother. It shouldn’t have taken Jane or Logan (or Simon or Catherine, for that matter) more than one or two thoughts to realize that Leah was manipulating them. With that caveat, though, everything else worked with elaborate precision.

Leah’s death was somewhat predictable, but the damage she inflicts along the way contains the story’s heart. With that in mind, I really don’t see the point of Sherida’s role. She’s obviously meant as a catalyst–to stir things up, and bring about change. For a while is seems that there’s the genesis of an affair between her and Sherida.

It might’ve been better if there was more to it; if nothing else, that would’ve made Christine’s attack on her a wee bit more believable. As it is, we’ve got an attempted murder–that everyone just ignores–undoubtedly because Sherida automatically forgives her.

The isolated quality of the setting (and the castle itself) certainly enhances the sense of intrigue, and dips into the unreal. The finer points of logic, and even emotional states, are suitibly blurred. Had this drama played out in a swanky London mansion, for example, Leah’s wicked spell would’ve seemed even more implausible.

An excellent drama; very atmospheric, with some great performances (Whitty’s role was lamentably minor). Highly recommended. 8.5/10.

A Taste Of Honey, 1961. 10/10

Rita Tushingham stars in this subtle but powerful drama of a teenage girl finding her way in lower-middle-class England. Her mom Helen (Dora Bryan ) hasn’t got much time or patience for Jo (Tushingham). The girl wants to quit school and go to work. What Jo finds is Jimmy (Paul Danquah), a sailor, who gets her pregnant.

We also see mom’s boyfriend, Peter Smith (Robert Stephens) and Jo’s other boyfriend, Geoffrey Ingham (Murray Melvin). Jo is a sort of female version of the Albert Finney Angry Young Man type in this era of British film. Younger than Finney’s characters, she nonetheless has the automatic disdain for just about everything, especially parental and authority figures.

We start with a panorama of rundown street scenes (with some more sedate architecture mixed in) as Jo returns home on the bus. Jimmy helps her with her stuff. As soon as Jo steps in the door she and mom start arguing. Mom says she’s going to meet Peter. At a pub, Helen sings some old popular tunes, with Peter alongside.

Jo sees them coming home later. Looking at Peter, she says, dismissively, “What’s this one called?” Next morning, she’s getting ready for school. Mom fumbles around with a bunch of Jo’s very sophisticated drawings; at school she gets in some trouble for mocking the teacher.

Despite the beautiful, evocative literature the teacher’s reading (Keats?), it just seems boring to the class. They’re not ready for it, or, like everything else here, the good things are more or less hidden.

Helen (Jo never calls her ‘mom’) is a selfish, superficial bore, as is Peter. Jimmy, on the other hand, despite being old enough to be an uncle, shows Jo genuine respect and affection (looks like she’s about 14, maybe he’s 20). So, it’s no surprise that she takes to him.

Her sarcasm turns to wit, her smugness–just a playful pose. Anyway, she goes down to the waterfront to find Jimmy; he patches up her scraped knee on board his ship. They meet up quite a bit; in bed too. She says she loves him.

Meanwhile, Peter’s attempts to romance Helen are less than warm and fuzzy. Jo doesn’t look favorably on mom’s prospects “I’ll be dead and buried by the time I’m your age… you’re forty, but you look like a well-preserved sixty.” Direct hits.

After bailing out of a particularly wretched holiday with her ‘family’ (mom, Peter and another couple), she goes home and finds Jimmy. They have a carefree, fun time, but he has to ship out. Mom comes home, announcing to Jo that she’s marrying Peter. She also discovers the ring that Jimmy’s given Jo.

“Marriage can be murder for a kid” is among the actually needful tidbits that Helen gives her. Jo asks about her father, whom she apparently never knew. Mom tells her about the day she was conceived. Anyway, Jo sees her mom off–time for Jo’s new job. The shopkeeper is protective of her, even though sales are hard to come by. A young guy, Geoffrey, comes into the shoestore.

She moves out. At a parade, she sees Geoffrey; they agree to go to the fair, with all its amusements. They go back to her place, she tells him goodnight, but then asks him inside. He confesses that he was evicted from his place. She says he can stay if he tells about “what you do” (she means as a gay man).

She apologizes. He stays. She taunts him slightly “I might be after you!” Then he’s “like a big sister to me.” He is domestic, taking care of her place, cooking, etc. They even find some kittens. One day he goes looking for her, she tells him she’s pregnant. He mentions abortion as if he just discovered a big secret. He does say what she should do, but she doesn’t want to listen.

“You’ll be your usual self” in no time, he says, trying to comfort her. “What is my usual self? My usual self is a very unusual self!” That launches her into a better mood; now she wants to go with him to the country. He desperately wants to be close to her, but she pushes him off “You’re nothing to me; I’m everything to meself!” Spoken like a true Angry Young Person. He even offers to marry her. He really does want to take care of her.

She taunts him “you have no confidence, do you?!” They walk by a woebegone canal, faced by dilapidated buildings. As is many other outdoor scenes, there’s bunches of happy children running around, singing. Geoff: “I’d rather be dead than be away from you…being with you is my life” just then, she feels the baby kick.

“We don’t ask for life, we have it thrust upon us” she muses, seeing a dead bird on a grave. When he gives her a doll to ‘practice’ with, she explodes again “I don’t want to be a mother! I don’t want to be a woman!” Well, under the circumstances, in that time and place, it could not have been easy.

Could say about the same for Geoff, as he and Helen more or less trade insults “what’s your role [with Jo]? Nursemaid?” Meanwhile, Helen, of course, has her own odd situation with her loutish husband. Mom goes to visit Jo, anyway. She criticizes her daughter, then Geoffrey. The mother and daughter end up calling each other whores.

Almost fittingly, all three of them are disgusted by Peter, who staggers in. Finally, Jo and her mom relax and talk sincerely. A bit later, Jo’s down by the river; she tells him she doesn’t love Jimmy any more. They recite nursery rhymes. She says “I always want to have you with me, because I know you’ll never ask anything from me.”

Time for moms to return. More arguing, as Geoff feels like a third wheel. Jo tells him that between her mom and him, that’s it’s “a choice between two old women.” But she tells mom that she wants him to stay. But he writes Jo a note; he’s leaving. She now tells mom that the baby’s father is black.

In the courtyard, the kids seem to be having a Guy Fawkes Day celebration. She reads the note (Geoff basically just says goodbye). We end like that. A little kid hands her a sparkler, we hear the others singing the same song we’ve heard at the beginning, and at times throughout.

This familiar and comfortable motif–the kids playing and singing, the helpful way they seem to always know what’s going on–is in continual juxtaposition with the grit and drudgery surrounding Jo, and the hapless shallowness of her mom’s life. The movie shows how Jo tries, with both Jimmy and Geoff, to transcend what life has dealt her.

Though there is no definite resolution, she has attained the independence and perspective she’ll need not to become like her mom. In a way, the innocent backdrop (the kids having fun) is an expression of the hope and spontaneity that Jo has sought. Strangely, though she’s abandoned by both men, and having learned how useless her mom is, there’s a bit of euphoria in the bonfire celebration at the end.

Very nuanced acting–particularly by Tushingham, no less by Bryan–bring this drama into sharp, unrelenting focus. It’s significant that none of these people is really a great person; both of Jo’s guys are flawed from her point of view (Geoff through no fault of his own), Peter is worse, and get mom takes the proverbial cake.

Which leaves Jo. She’s not exactly easy to get along with; her mom’s made her bitter. Jo’s always nice to Jimmy, but he’s basically run out on her; his job is really just a reason for leaving, not an excuse.

Anyway, this drama builds an engaging, multi-layered story around an elegantly simple plot; we see ordinary people struggling to either become aware of themselves or just lapse into delusion. Great stuff. 10/10.