Holiday in Spain/Scent of Mystery, 1960. 5.5/10

Peter Lorre stars in this mystery. As in some of his other roles, he goes by a nickname, Smiley. The plot concerns the death threat to an American woman, ‘Sally’ Kennedy (Beverly Bentley, who plays an imposter of Sally) in Spain. An Englishman, Oliver (Denholm Elliot), tries to help Sally. In doing so, he also becomes a target. It seems that Sally is an heiress, about to become a millionaire.

The supporting cast includes Paul Lukas as Baron Saradin, Leo McKern as Tommy, Sally’s brother; there’s Tommy’s wife, Margharita (Mary Laura Wood), Johnny (Liam Redmond), Diane Dors as Winifrid, and the Kennedy’s attorney, Robert Fleming (Peter Arne). Elizabeth Taylor has a bitsy, but important part.

For theatrical release, actual scent-generating devices we’re used to simulate fragrances at key points. The fragrance motif is not the only oddity here; there’s a sort of narrative travelog aspect as well.

Sure enough, we start with a butterfly view of Spanish countryside–is that critter the narrator? No, it’s Oliver, doing a tourist amble. Stuck in a crowd of schoolkids, the cabbie Smiley more or less rescues him. In the city, a man asks a policeman if he’s seen a woman with a huge hat. The cab is sideswiped by a speeding truck.

Oliver sees the woman with the big hat. Another English-speaking guy, Johnny, tries to tell Oliver and Smiley that the truck’s real target was Sally. Meanwhile, the Baron, who had been eating at a nearby sidewalk cafe, sees the accident too. Apparently a cashed check is a clue. Oliver goes to the curio shop where the transaction occured. Rather incredibly, the shopkeeper gives Oliver the girl’s name and hotel address (It’s our Sally).

Now Oliver pretty much trolls around the beach looking for Sally. He thinks it’s Winifred, but she’s oblivious, though coy. By this point Oliver figures that Sally is in grave danger; so, in effect he’s offering his services as a ‘protector.’ He then finds Sally, in her own room. She is quite beguiling; he drops the ‘protection’ concept on her. He recounts the events of the day, which point to her being targeted.

She thinks it’s pretty much a delusion of Johnny’s, who’s a less than credible character. She mentions that her brother is in town. Anyway, Smiley takes Oliver though a remote mountain village. There’s a gypsy dance going on. Back in the city, The Baron is accosted by Johnny at a cafe table; Johnny too is looking for Sally. Why?

At the village, Oliver and Smiley talk about the single life and its freedoms. Back to the Baron and Johnny: on a signal from the Baron, a wagonload of wine barrels goes tumbling down a steep, narrow street and crushes Johnny. Oliver and Smiley show up at the scene (this looks to be in the city’s outskirts). Their conclusion is that this incident confirms the danger to Sally.

Johnny ‘knew to much,’ it seems. Sally gets into a Mercedes roadster with a guy; Smiley and Oliver follow. At least two other cars follow them. A slow but picturesque drive through the arid countryside. By taking shortcuts, the taxi is able to keep up with the sports car. They go through a town in festival mode: running of the bulls.

More quaint this and that…hey, there’s a movie plot to catch up with! We see the red Mercedes finally, the all-too-long chase resumes. Time for a blow-out on the taxi. Oliver, using binoculars, and scrambling up a hill, nonetheless espys Sally in the next town. Someone is shooting at him, though. A bunch of tourists laugh at him skulking about.

Eventually, they get up to the same hotel where he saw Sally’s car parked. Apparently, she’s using Constance Walker as a psuedonym. She’s more or less announced by a guy who buys a round for the hotel bar patrons. The guy, Mr. Walker, is there with his wife, not his sister Sally. Oliver tries to chat up the hotel desk clerk, Margharita. She, however, hasn’t seen a bit of the suddenly elusive Sally.

Now Tommy (Mr. Walker) intrudes on the scene, trying to dispose of Oliver. He insists that his sister isn’t at the hotel; she’s on a yacht. Nonetheless, the ‘good guys’ see Sally’s car nearby. There’s the silhouette of a pipe-smoking guy against a wall. Mysterious? Not so much. Well, he finds Sally, in bed, no less. But in doing so, he has to fight off another guy climbing into her balcony from the opposite direction.

An actual intermission is next. That’s good–I need a break. The plot is so slowly-paced that the prospect of another hour of this fills me with dread. And I’m certain that things won’t get much better, if at all. If this were strictly a romantic comedy, it would work pretty well.

Elliot and Bentley make a decent couple, meeting nice in an exotic location. That’s the beginning and end of the good stuff. Nothing else makes sense. Why would Oliver get mixed up in Sally’s life for other than romantic reasons?

If he thinks she’s in some danger, logic suggests that he go to the police. He doesn’t seem to have any local ties (even Smiley is simply a friendly stranger), so why not just remain a tourist? If she’d come to him, that would be different; up to this point they’ve only seen each other, but they haven’t even really met. Lorre isn’t given anything to do; the only interesting character, Johnny, has already been killed off.

The fight scene in Sally’s bedroom continues after intermission. Finally, Oliver prevails. The ‘assailant’ claims that he’s the attorney, Robert Fleming. He relates that he’s her protector, because if she dies before midnight of the following day, her part of the fortune will revert to her brother. This at least makes sense.

Meaning, of course, that any death plot against Sally would have to have originated with Tommy. Fleming tells her as much. Now on the same side, the two guys agree that they have to spirit Sally away from the hotel. Of course, Smiley provides the getaway car. The Baron and Margharita look on from a hidden spot.

Sally’s idea is to go to Seville, where a gigantic festival is in progress. Good plan, except, as they meander though the crowded streets, Oliver is grazed by a bullet. The Baron’s the shooter. Sally flees, but the dastardly guy chases her into a church. The Baron has a few tricks up his sleeve, but the three ‘good guys’ escape eventually in the taxi.

At long last, the old car breaks down. Gives Oliver and Sally time to get acquainted. They stop to admire the view. Aha! She pulls a gun on them, but the clip’s empty. The next surprise is that Sally’s, after all, the imposter. She steals the car; the Baron, meanwhile, spying the taxi, has taken up a position with a rifle.

He shoots a tire, and the taxi wobbles off the road and down a cliff. Scratch the imposter–she does pop up at the end, but may as well be gone. Seeing the two guys hitchiking, he’s dumfounded (he thinks all three of them were in the crashed car). He tries to shoot them too. Conveniently, there’s a maze of trails edging the cliffs. Chase scene, naturally.

Well, the Baron wanders into a tunnel, and is wiped out by a train zipping through. Back at the hotel, Tommy tells the real Sally to leave the hotel and meet up with him. Meanwhile, Oliver, who of course can fly, happens to find an old RAF acquaintance who loans him a plane.

They find Tommy’s van on the road, figuring that he’s going to murder his sister. They land. Engaging a taxi, they locate the van, and give chase. Ok. But now more chasing, on foot…in the distance they see her; but the nearby bullfight drowns out their shouts. Fleming is pursuing Tommy. Now the denouement: Oliver does a Batman-like trick by hooking his umbrella to a power line and riding it all the way down to the action below. Fleming’s tackled.

So, it was Fleming, not Tommy, who planned to kill Sally. The imposter was Fleming’s girlfriend, who was in on the scheme, along with Margharita. Apparently, the smell of tobacco was the decisive clue. And here’s a nice surprise, Elizabeth Taylor is Sally. In fact, she was the woman he’d seen scooting around in the first scenes, avoiding the truck accident. The end.

I’ve got to admit that the second half was an improvement over the first. The plot thickened, but didn’t exactly come together. Other than the obvious problem of Oliver’s motivation, even the ‘bad guys’ strategy didn’t add up. Sure, there’s a lot of money at stake.

But isn’t it obvious that Margharita (assuming Fleming kills both Tommy and Sally) is going to be the primary suspect? Not to mention Fleming and his girlfriend, who, presumably knew about the inheritance, and therefore could work the angles to get a piece of it. Even if Sally’s death is rigged to look accidental, there would be immediate suspicion.

Given no more than a skin-deep look at the murder plot(s), it still doesn’t make sense that they would need an imposter for a decoy. Who is it supposed to fool? Yes, it fools the Baron, proving he can’t be in on the plot. It fools Oliver; but there’s no way the plotters could’ve known there would be such a person snooping about. Only someone actually protecting Sally would want to distract potential assassins with an imposter.

The last half of the movie does open up the possibility that this could’ve been an effective murder mystery. But, even leaving aside the odd plot hole, why the incessant travel narrative, the frankly silly tone, and the droning, numbing pacing? (Do we really need the flying scene?). As mentioned, Lorre can be excused because his role is nearly superfluous; but Elliot has precisely the wrong persona for this role.

He’s trying so hard to look suave that he’s boorish. The constant smirk betrays him; he’s not funny, and he’s not cool. The other supporting characters work well enough, although I still can’t figure out what the Baron has to do with anything. For that matter, why does Smiley drop everything and just decide to work privately for Oliver?

And, then, there’s the imposter Sally. She survives the crash. Oliver, however, has nothing more than a glimmer of shock when she turns the tables on him–as though she were a stranger. He’s basically had an affair with her, and doesn’t think twice after she betrays him. He automatically attaches himself into the real Sally, as though the name is the same as the person.

I wouldn’t stay up late to see this, or bother to record it either. Great tour of the Spanish countryside, though. 5.5/10

Stranger On The Third Floor, 1940. 10/10

A psychological thriller in which Peter Lorre is simply The Stranger. Let’s just call him the murderer as well. A reporter, Michael Ward (John McGuire), tries to clear Joe Briggs (Elisha Cook, Jr.) of one murder, only to end up in a similar fix himself.

There’s Mike’s fiancee, Jane (Margaret Tallichet), the creepy Meng (Charles Halton), Mrs. Kane (Ethel Griffies), Martin (Cliff Clark), and for courtroom drama, the D.A (Charles Waldron), and the judge (Oscar O’Shea).

A cutesy drugstore counter scene with Mike and Jane starts us off. Then, there’s cuteness of a different order, a poker game in the pressroom. Mike’s hot stuff since…this flashback lets us know.

Mike describes finding Briggs on the night of the first murder. Briggs had been seen arguing with the victim, Nick; then, that night, Mike saw Briggs standing over the body. Brigg’s alibi was that he felt contrite after the argument with Nick, so he went to pay up a small debt later, only to find Nick dead.

Poor Briggs (meaning Cook); he’s the guiltiest looking person imaginable. Anyway, back to the present: Nick is beginning to wonder about Brigg’s guilt–basically his testimony is throwing the switch on the guy. Martin, a colleague, talks to both Mike and Jane about it.

Martin could really care less if Briggs is guilty or not. After the expected guilty verdict, Mike’s stewing. So is Jane–she’s pretty much his conscience. Walking the streets, he starts to daydream, ruminating on the case. He returns to Nick’s diner.

Uh–oh. He’s face to face with The Stranger on the landing opposite the diner. He lives in the same building as Nick. He sees someone skulk around the hallway; we see it’s our Stranger. Mike pursues him down the stairs, but the guy escapes out onto the street.

He suspects that something has happened in the building. So he takes a knife, and…first, time out for a flashback at Nick’s. Mike and Martin are eating up when Meng enters. He’s a sort of fussbudget “a worm.” We establish that he’d sooner be done with Meng than bother to get the mail.

Ok, but then, another flashback: he brings Jane up to his room for the first time. It’s a charming, romantic scene. They’re both tentative and shy, but obviously attracted to each other. Once again, it’s Meng who crosses his path, can’t have a woman in a “respectable house,” you know.

We can figure that Meng is going to get it; and that Mike will get fingered in the same way Briggs did for Nick’s death. Back to the present. He realizes that nothing’s happened yet. Sleep is no help, as Mike has nightmares that he’s being interrogated and railroaded for Meng’s death.

This montage is excellent, very Expressionist, and goes on and on. Pretty much puts us in the Twilight Zone. Not only is this hallucinatory stuff great, but, obviously we still can’t know if anything’s happened to good old Meng. The best touch is that The Stranger is in this psychological court room. And, on the nightmarish electric chair, who looks on but Briggs?

Meng himself has the last word; then, thankfully, Mike wakes up. Of course his first impulse is to look in on Meng; who, naturally, is dead. A complete replay of Brigg’s dilemma. The only question is, will he call the police or Jane? Jane. They meet in the nearby park to discuss the situation.

He wants to flee; she wants “to figure things out.” He now realizes that the same person did both murders (the m.o. is identical). So, reason prevails, he goes back to the scene. He tells the cops what he knows–including the deal with the killer’s knife.

The D.A. and Lieutenant listen to him, but seem skeptical. Except for the simple fact that Mike has found the bodies of both victims, making him a material witness (meaning he must also be the murderer). Jane turns sleuth, and goes around the neighborhood asking if anyone has seen The Stranger.

No soap. More or less distraught, she goes into a diner, and viola! It’s him. She goes up to him outside, but doesn’t know what to do. She accompanies him; trying to freak him out by discussing the murders. He describes his time in an asylum. She adroitly gains his confidence to the point that he confesses to killing Meng.

That noteworthy busybody was on the verge of doing an actual good deed–turning in The Stranger–so our boy “had to kill him.” Desperate, Jane gets turned away from a strange building; he gets jittery and now, on the deserted streets, he chases after her.

Luckily he’s hit by a passing truck. Great denouement: he confesses to the cop on the scene before dying. A final return to the drugstore counter scene. Then Briggs, also now free and clear, is the cabbie taking them to capitalize on their marriage licenses. The end.

Excellent in every way. This is one crime mystery (many credit it with being the first film noir) in which the romance is much more than a back-drop or subplot. McGuire and Tallichet have a wonderful naturalness in their scenes together that, like some couples in love, they achieve a sort of fusion–soul mates.

As good as that works, the plot and cinematography could not be better. Here’s a simple story amplified by tension, stress, anxiety, and, built by Expressionist layers, via the flashbacks and dream sequences, in effect partnering Rod Serling with Franz Kafka. All of this in an hour.

The supporting cast antes up commendably. The nightmarish atmosphere (with the notable exemption of the breezy frame story at the drugstore counter) is sealed-in by the slightly oddball personalities buzzing around Jane and Mike throughout.

There’s a sort of joy to seeing something done well–which has nothing to do with the subject matter. I think that’s because we’re witnessing art. Yes, murder is the subject. But, for the most part, we see and feel thoughts and emotions, not gunplay, fights, or actually any violence.

The Stranger getting killed by the truck is oddly cathartic. Plus, we do get the redeeming safety net, so to speak, of an ordinary, believable couple whom it’s easy to identify with. Without any missteps we have the bizarre and irrational alongside the authentic and down-to-earth.

A textbook bit of elegant film-making. 10/10

Mickey One, 1965. 7/10

Warren Beatty’s Mickey is on the run from the Detroit mob. So, he finds himself on Chicago’s South Side comedy club circuit. A great cast supports this jazzy, noirish drama: Franchot Tone, Hurd Hatfield, Alexandra Stewart, Terry Hart, Jeff Corey, and Kamatari Fujiwara are Ruby Lapp, Ed Castle, Jenny, George, Larry, and, simply, The Artist, respectively.

Ed runs club Xanadu, George becomes Mickey’s agent, Jenny is Mickey’s eventual girlfriend. The Artist literally gets into the act. Mickey does all right for himself for a bit, he can’t quite shake the long reach of the mob boys. There’s been quite a lot of buzz that Mickey One is Kafka- or Fellini-esque. We’ll see.

Well, maybe so. Cute girls draped over hot cars, and lounging with the lizards (Mickey as number one lizard) in clubs and pools. But then “they” call in his marker for Mickey’s hedonistic lifestyle that we’ve seen a quick slice of. At the Lapland (Ruby’s spot), he bugs out after a lousy last performance. Mickey does burning his draft card one better by burning all of his ID. Onto Chicago.

Appropriately staggering from a baggage car with a pint of Jim Beam, he lands in a junkyard. Looking precisely like an urban hell, Mickey runs a gauntlet of menacing characters and mechanical monsters, emerging on some ugly streets, watching him own reflection. First stop is a sort of Christian reading room.

At least he can grub-up. Finding a rolled bum, he grabs the guy’s social security card (he’s now officially Mickey). That ruse enables him to get a dishwasher job. He literally rubs up against Jenny–soon they’re hanging out–in a tough guy way. “You’re a nice girl” he finally admits. For real kicks, he goes down to the seedy, but swinging part of town.

A terrible comedian and other acts get minimal applause from a dead place. He talks his way into going on stage; next stop, to get legit, is George the agent. So he’s doing his act in a strip club. Due to weird juxtapositions, it’s not clear whether he’s on stage or behind the curtain.

His agent talks to Ed, who’s indifferent at first, but soon comes to like Mickey. For some reason, Mickey’s skittish about working the upscale Xanadu. At an arcade, he’s transfixed by a peepshow. Anyway, Ed and George come calling on him: Ed is very flattering “the successful comic is the king of entertainment!” Still he’s comprehensively creepy.

Mickey storms into his place; Jenny’s there, it looks like one of them is being evicted. “I’m not interested in you sexually!” Oh, I think he is. He wants her to move in with him. For some reason, she also is living under an assumed name. She figures that he’s an entertainer. He describes being on stage as a type of “freedom.” They gel quickly.

He runs into the mob guy in a butcher shop. “There’s no place you can hide from ‘them’.” Actually, this scene is rendered as part of a flashback (4+ years worth) that he narrates to Jenny. Here’s a nice surrealist beach scene with he, Jenny and a bunch of others trampolining. For about the tenth time, the Artist pokes in, this time with his “Yes” device in full song. After a fireworks display, the thing destroys itself. Well, The Artist got plenty of attention.

This goes on a bit too long, reminding me of the sudsy swimming pool scene from the 1963 Troy Donahue spring break movie, Palm Springs Weekend. Finally, back to Mickey and Jenny’s apartment for an argument. She wants him to play the Xanadu, but he’s got some mental block against it. Well, they do love each other.

Tonight’s the night: he’ll do the Xanadu, Jenny will come by to show support. Ed is wary as Jenny tells him about Mickey’s mental state, i.e., his lack of “trust.” Larry is there to ‘look him over’ for the Midwest club circuit. It’s as though Mickey equates this Larry with the Detroit mob. Now he blames Jenny. Weirdly, Larry’s just a disembodied voice for the audition.

Left alone on the stage, with spotlights pinning him down, Mickey starts to panic. Very gradually, he recovers, and goes into an improv routine; but he melts down completely, and breaks out a window onto the street. Jenny follows him into an alley. Her entire role seems to consist of nurturing him.

He sends her off to find George. Meanwhile it’s Larry that’s going ape with Ed. At a bar, Mickey tries to find out who is after him from a friendly bartender, who’s confusedly named Eddie. Mickey actually goes to the cops too. Finally, Ed corners him “Find someone to clear me!” he says. Ruby, apparently, is dead. Ed tells him ultimately to leave town, but Mickey wants in at a high-stakes craps game.

The doormen exchange knowing looks when he goes to find the “big game.” Instead he gets jumped by these exotically-dressed guys. Only a ton of cops save him– a huge free-for-all distracts the goons. Stealing a taxi, he splits to the junkyard from the movie’s beginning. A bunch of creeps try and draw him into a junked van, the Artist pops in yet again, but he gets back to town, and to Jenny, safely.

So, he is going to perform at the Xanadu. Finally on stage, he starts so slowly that it sounds like a poetry reading. He’s mesmerized by the spotlight, but this time we know he’ll not freak out. Well, the scene shift to the top of a skyscraper tells us all we need to know: he’s on top of the world. The end.

Mickey One is very entertaining, but hard to evaluate. The surrealist stuff is nicely done, and, thanks to The Artist, peeps out with a certain flow. Mickey’s angst is linked to that undercurrent, which he doesn’t shake free of until the very end. I wouldn’t say this film is Fellini-esque as much as Abstract Expressionist Noir.

I made up that term; the gritty, down-and-dirty urban environment is nothing if not film noir, and what we see as a sideshow, so to speak, has a lot of non-representable content (even the name “Yes” on The Artist’s thingie is an abstraction). The result is sometimes fascinating, but, overall, a bit confusing.

There’s really two movies going on simultaneously. It’s through Mickey’s perspective that we see all the weird stuff–as opposed to mere happenstance, like the soup kitchen and street people–which are odd scenes, but public, and therefore believable.

The Artist, for example, is just there; he’s part of the cityscape quite apart from Mickey’s fixation on him. That’s all very much psychological thriller territory. But the mental aspect is underplayed, despite Mickey’s obvious paranoia and hallucinations. We’re to believe that the Detroit gangsters are dogging him throughout.

It would be nearly impossible to trace someone, in those pre-internet days, who has changed his identity in such a clean way as has Mickey. He comes out of his funk when he feels better about himself, in, we might say, an holistic sense. He can perform again; he has a great girlfriend, and good (if oddball) business contacts.

So, what’s the point of the absurdist stuff? It’s lingering about, begging to be integrated into the main plot, but never really makes it. That disconnect makes Jenny’s role a bit unbelievable. Viewers might rationalize that women were more willing to put up with needy guys back then; there’s that interpretation.

But she’s hardly a passive dependent type. She doesn’t need Mickey, but can’t distance herself from him. They’re obviously attracted to each other. She has to be much more than his lover, however. Add on: shrink, nurse, job-coach, mom, etc. It would make better sense if there were more psychological depth to their relationship. She runs interference for him, that’s it.

Steve McQueen starred in the superficially similar The Cincinnati Kid from the same year. McQueen’s character also has to high-tail it out of town to escape gangsters, and, like Beatty’s character, has to set up shop again in seedy surroundings (with an equally beguiling love-interest). But The Kid is straightforward drama–slick, clever, and rough.

It’s good that Mickey One gives it’s protagonist so much nuance; nonetheless, there’s incongruous junk just shoved into the plot. As The Kid, McQueen has plenty of angst–enough to increase the humidity in those dingy cardrooms. That movie has plenty of atmosphere; Mickey One has too much.

Can’t complain about the performances. Beatty makes an ideal anti-hero. In fact, Stewart’s role has the only accessible personality here; everyone else is off key, or just plain off-the-grid. This is a very credible experiment in mood, tone, and ambience. In making its interesting detours, though, we’re kind of stranded at the end. 7/10.