Up Periscope (1959)

up-periscopeWith the premier of Maverick on TV in 1957, star James Garner became a huge star across America. He wasn’t limited to television roles though, quickly transitioning to feature film roles as well. One of his earlier efforts as he rose to fame was a World War II submarine story, 1959’s Up Periscope.

It’s 1942 and the U.S. is beginning to push back against the Japanese in the Pacific. With an invasion of the Marshall and Gilbert Islands forthcoming, a U.S. Navy frogman, Lt. Kenneth Braden (Garner) has been assigned an incredibly dangerous mission. Allied intelligence hasn’t been able to break a key Japanese code so Braden will be a passenger on the USS Barracuda, a submarine led by Commander Paul Stevenson (Edmond O’Brien). The sub will sneak him onto a Japanese-held island where Braden will steal/photograph the code without being discovered. Meanwhile, the sub will wait off-shore until Braden can accomplish the mission. Can he though against nearly impossible odds?

Not remembered as one of the submarine genre classics that came out in waves following WWII, ‘Periscope’ is a solid if not flashy entry that’s worth a watch. Is the mission itself pretty goofy? You bet it is! But it’s exciting and features a strong cast, especially up at the top. Director Gordon Douglas had a string of these movies over the 1950s and 1960s, none of them considered classics but almost all of them damn entertaining.

Garner may always be remembered most for his starring TV roles, notably Maverick and The Rockford Files. To a newer film audience, probably for his key part in The Notebook! As a younger actor, Garner was as steady as they come. The Great Escape is my favorite Garner part, mostly because he makes it look so easy. That’s the case here. Garner’s Braden is cool, underplayed and ready for whatever the mission can throw at him. He’s not GI Joe though either (thankfully), just a capable officer who knows potentially what awaits him (he’s told not to get captured on the Japanese-held island). For lack of a better description, Garner is/was almost always likable on-screen. That’s certainly on display here.

Talk about two underrated actors, Garner and Edmond O’Brien are excellent together. Far from friendly, just two officers trying to do their job. O’Brien’s Stevenson is coming off a patrol that saw one of his crew die, maybe in needlessly cautious fashion. Fresh off the patrol, the crew is less than trusting. The veteran commander has to prove himself, both to himself and to his crew, all while trying to go by the book in a nearly impossible mission. Rock and a hard place for sure. Their chemistry though is excellent, heated and uncomfortable at times but never forced.

Among the crew, Alan Hale Jr. – pre-Gilligan’s Island – is a scene-stealer as Lt. Malone, a fun-loving and long-time ensign who everyone likes. There are also parts for Carleton Carpenter, William Leslie, Richard Bakalyan, Edd Byrnes, Henry Kulky and uncredited parts for Bernie Hamilton and Warren Oates (his first movie role). Slow-going early as we meet Garner’s Braden romancing Andra Martin’s Sally Johnson. Thankfully, there’s a twist in store for this kinda forced love story. Not your typical love story forcibly jammed into a war story!

All the war conventions are there here in ‘Periscope,’ the claustrophobic setting, the tension-ridden encounters with the enemy, both above and below the water, and that all-too familiar ping of the radar echoing through the conning tower. It’s in the last 45 minutes as Braden sneaks onto the island where the movie especially hits its groove. Stevenson and the Barracuda wait at the bottom of the island’s lagoon, their fresh air running out with each passing minute. A bit of a secret agent mixed with a submarine war story. A nice, little mix!

Worth a watch, especially for fans of the WWII, submarine and adventure genre! Also worth mentioning, the score borrows from Max Steiner’s Warner Bros. score from 1945’s Objective, Burma! which would also be sampled 3 years later in Merrill’s Marauders. It’s a good score so it’s definitely not a bad thing.

Up Periscope (1959): ** ½ /****


Operation Pacific (1951)

operation-pacificThe buzz for the World War II submarine movie truly picked up in the mid 1950’s and has been a consistent source for solid to entertaining to classic flicks ever since. The first true gem was 1943’s Destination Tokyo, but getting in on the formula before it truly took off, here’s 1951’s Operation Pacific.

It’s 1943 and American forces are pushing back against Japan in the aftermath of the Pearl Harbor attack. One submarine, the USS Thunderfish, is commanded by Commander Pop Perry (Ward Bond), with his second-in-command, Lt. Cmdr. Duke Gifford (John Wayne). Both experienced submariners, the duo has a strong, reliable crew. When back in port, Gifford is trying to reunite with his ex-wife, Mary (Patricia Neal), who’s now working as a nurse in a naval hospital. Out in the Pacific though, the war is up for grabs, and the Thunderfish and countless other American submarines are working to fix malfunctioning torpedoes that are not exploding on contact.

This 1951 WWII flick from director George Waggner is never mentioned as one of Wayne’s best films. Instead, it’s one of those movies that his fans and war movie fans will like, but ‘Operation’ won’t be remembered as a classic by any means. It clocks in at 111 minutes and is a little slow-moving at times but mostly entertaining, especially because of the three leads. Later submarine movies are more fondly remembered, but this one’s pretty good, if flawed.

Wayne and Bond were best friends on and off the screen, and their chemistry always shines through when they’re starring together. By 1951, Wayne was one of the most bankable stars in Hollywood, a trend that would continue for years. He’s the out and out American hero here, saving babies and nuns, defeating the Japanese navy with some gutsy decisions, and being a cool dude too (because that never hurts). Bond is excellent in an underplayed part, the veteran commander who has an inkling he knows what’s wrong with the malfunctioning torpedoes.

If there’s a weakness here, it’s that the love story slows things down to a snail’s pace. Wayne and Neal have some strong chemistry, which is funny because Neal apparently DID NOT get along with Wayne during filming. It doesn’t show. Their scenes together are solid, and Neal doesn’t get overshadowed, more than holding her own against the Duke. Still, their history simply isn’t that interesting, the problems they had never really get fixed, and you still know he’s gonna get the girl in the end.

In the supporting cast, look for Philip Carey as Lt. Bob Perry, Pop’s little brother, a fighter pilot, and a rival to Duke for Mary’s heart (but you know how that’ll go). As for the Thunderfish crew, look for Scott Forbes, Paul Picerni, William Campbell, Martin Milner, Jack Pennick and Sam Edwards. It’s especially cool to see Pennick get more screentime – and even some lines! – as Chief, the Thunderfish’s veteran chief petty officer who helps develop the officers and keep the crew together. Not a big part, but a worthwhile one.

‘Operation’ is at its stongest when it is in the Pacific with the Thunderfish out on patrols. Not a ton of action, but what’s there is enjoyable. A lot of tension, some good twists and turns, and one genuine shock about a character’s demise. Nothing flashy, but a good, old-fashioned war flick with the Duke and Ward Bond leading the way.

Operation Pacific (1951): ** ½ /****

An Eye for an Eye (1966)

An Eye for an EyeThe wild west gunslinger is one of the most iconic archetypes to come out of the western genre, right up there with the cowboy and the cavalry trooper. But how about a more specific gunfighter? I’m thinking the disabled gunfighter, undone by wounds, disease, and any number of other plights. With 1966’s An Eye for an Eye, we don’t get one…but two disabled gunfighters!

An infamous bounty hunter, Talion (Robert Lansing) has given up his career with guns and started a family. An enemy from his past though, bloodthirsty Ike Slant (Slim Pickens), isn’t having it though, raping Talion’s wife, then killing her and their son, burning the house down on the way out. Swearing revenge, Talion picks up the gunman’s trail, eventually meeting a younger bounty hunter, Benny Wallace (Patrick Wayne) along the way. They form an uneasy partnership to track down and kill Slant and the two gunfighters riding with him. Their plan goes awry though, forcing the two unlikely partners to depend on each other far more than they ever anticipated. Can they put their rivalry aside to get Slant?

An interesting little western. Definitely a B-western with a smaller budget and cast, ‘Eye’ is still an entertaining, different western entry. I first rented it on Netflix years ago and recently recorded an airing on TCM. It’s not a classic, but it holds up. A second unit director predominantly, director Michael Moore (not that Michael Moore) works off a script from Bing Russell, a familiar face western fans will have seen in The Horse Soldiers and countless other TV westerns. It’s pretty traditional overall but rises above with a nice twist delivered near the halfway point. Stop your reading if you don’t want to be spoiled.

That nice twist? In a showdown with Slant and two gunmen, Talion’s gun-hand is crippled and Benny is blinded by a wayward bullet. Slant escapes, only to find out later that the bounty hunter duo is basically helpless and would be easy targets. Needing each other more than ever, Talion and Benny devise a plan where the crippled gunman calls out where the target is as if that target was a specific time on a clock, Benny doing the shooting. Pretty cool, huh? I thought so. It’s unique and different from just about any other western I’ve seen. It gets definite points for originality. End of relative spoilers.

Neither Lansing or Wayne had huge star power, but we’re talking two very capable western/action actors. I like Lansing’s Talion and the edge he brings to the part. Wayne — often overshadowed by his Dad, the Duke, nicely holds his own here. He does very well physically as the blinded bounty hunter, but he gets to show off his acting chops a bit (if a little overdone with one unnecessary twist late). As for Pickens, he looks to be having a ball as the villain, hamming it up and enjoying his turn as a bad guy. You realize he often played likable sidekicks, not getting many villainous roles.

Also look for the always welcome Paul Fix as a store owner in an isolated mountain town, working with his daughter (Gloria Talbott) and precocious son (a young Clint Howard). Another recognizable face, Strother Martin, gets to work the middle as a greedy gunhand who works for whoever pays him. A little slow-going at times as Talion meets (and sorta woos) Talbott’s Bri, but it’s never too slow. It definitely builds up the tension to the inevitable showdowns.

Something likable about this little-known western. Doesn’t rewrite the genre, but seems to enjoy throwing a new wrench into a familiar formula. Snow-capped, windy filming locations in Lone Pine, California definitely add to the mood. Worth a watch for western fans. I’m seeing different running times listed — avoid the “full movie” on Youtube at 76 minutes — but both versions I saw clocked in at about 95 minutes. Just a hopefully helpful FYI!

An Eye for an Eye (1966): ** 1/2 /****


36 Hours (1964)

36_hours_movieposterOne of the greatest secrets in the history of the world is remarkable to fathom even now, some 70 years later. That secret? The Allies ability to keep the location of the D-Day landings under wraps despite the extreme efforts in the German intelligence field to deduce the location. It was a moment(s) in time that literally changed history. One of the more underrated World War II movies ever made covers the topic from the intelligence perspective, 1964’s 36 Hours.

It’s late May 1944 and the impending Allied invasion of the European mainland is on everyone’s mind. Where will the Allies land? Will it be at Pas-de-Calais? At Normandy? And when? Major Jefferson Pike (James Garner), an American intelligence officer, is one of the few who knows the truth, who knows all the details of the coming invasion. Unfortunately, German intelligence knows his status too and kidnaps him while he’s meeting a contact in Lisbon. Their plan? A German doctor, Major Gerber (Rod Taylor), has developed an incredibly in-depth plot to get Pike to reveal where the coming invasion will take place. Gerber intends to convince Pike that it’s 1950 and the war is long since over. There’s no way he could pull it off, is there?

The history behind the story in this 1964 WWII espionage thriller is fascinating in itself. An invasion featuring hundreds of thousands of troops and materiel, planes, tanks, guns, food and ships that would start the road to the beginning of the war was kept under wraps for months despite Herculean efforts of the German intelligence staff to procure the truth. What better basic premise to spin off of for a criminally underrated World War II movie?

I’ve seen this movie three, maybe four times and come away more impressed each time. I don’t want to give too much away featuring Gerber’s plans to confuse and manipulate Pike into giving away the site of the D-Day landings, but let it be said…I would have fallen for the plan. Hair dye, newspapers, records and radio stations, hundreds of actors at a U.S. hospital in post-war Germany, the effort is staggering. The key though is the details, with Taylor and Eva Marie Saint representing the point people on the dupe. Posing as an American doctor and a nurse with a tortured past from the war, the success of the mission depends on the duo’s ability to pull off the ruse. Just sit back and watch their plan develop. It is amazingly entertaining — and uncomfortable — to watch.

The 1960’s were a heck of a time for Garner (in between hit TV shows), and he delivers an excellent performance here. He is the viewer, holding a valuable piece of information, but not quite sure what’s going on. His Pike is highly-trained and highly-intelligent so there’s no way this German effort to trick him works, right? Right?!? Half the fun here is going for the ride and seeing him start to piece things together. Taylor similarly gives a fascinating part as Gerber. He’s not an evil doctor, not a bloodthirsty Nazi, but an intelligent, well-meaning doctor who clearly thinks so outside the box. The cat-and-mouse game between him and Garner is what holds the movie together, Taylor beautifully underselling his part as he tries to deduce a secret that potentially turns the tide of the war. Excellent lead performances from 2 of my favorite actors.

The third lead performance is a gem too, Eva Marie Saint as Anna, a concentration camp survivor enlisted as part of the plan because of her ability to speak English. In bits and pieces, we discover her tortured past, that past tearing her up inside as to what to do concerning Pike and Gerber. She’s got excellent chemistry with both Garner and Taylor, the trio dominating the 115-minute run-time. Also look for Werner Peters as the SS officer tasked with “overseeing” Gerber and his plan, an expertly creepy part, and John Banner as a German home guard soldier, an interesting part a year away from his debut as dimwitted Sergeant Schultz on TV’s Hogan’s Heroes.

If there’s a weakness in ‘Hours,’ it’s in the last 40 minutes. The tension and mystery early is classic, an easy 4-star review. But once some twists and turns are revealed, the story limps along to the finish. It just can’t sustain the momentum built up over the first 75 minutes. Still, this George Seaton-directed thriller is worth it for that first half alone, especially with a Dmitri Tiomkin score and beautiful black-and-white filming in Yosemite National Park (standing in for Germany!). Give it a watch for sure.

36 Hours (1964): ***/****



Against the Wind

againstthewindposterWhen is it too early to release a war film? Do you let wounds heal? Do you tell a story regardless of the timing? In the late 1940s, studios around the world had to answer those questions. The war films that were made didn’t often shy from the truth, films like The Best Years of Our Lives, Twelve O’Clock High, Battleground and The Sands of Iwo Jima among others. Here’s one that’s been almost entirely forgotten, short on star power but a good story, 1948’s Against the Wind.

It’s relatively early in World War II. A Catholic priest, Philip (Robert Beatty) walks into a British museum requesting to see a specific office. Everything is not as it seems though. Philip has been recruited to join the Special Operations Execute (S.O.E), a unit placing undercover agents behind enemy lines as well as working with the Resistance in France, Belgium and across Europe. Philip finds himself working with men and women from countless backgrounds and cultures, all with their personal reasons for joining the cause. That cause has low percentages for survival though as these brave men and women will put their lives on the line to get the job done, day after day.

That plot synopsis came across as more positive propaganda than I intended. Touches are there though for sure in this 1948 British war film from director Charles Crichton. Only 3 years removed from the end of WWII, ‘Wind’ goes behind the lines in a story that while dark and atmospheric, it isn’t necessarily hard-hitting. It’s not heavy-handed – thankfully – and is content to tell the story of the brave men and women who risked their lives to aid the war effort. They didn’t fight on the front lines and would never get any headlines for their efforts.

So why is ‘Wind’ so generally forgotten? Well, for one, there are many more British war films that would be released in the 1950s and 1960s with far more star power. Recognizable faces are on display here, but only one big name I would say. Instead, we get an excellent ensemble that more than rises to the occasion. It’s somewhat disjointed early as we get to know our undercover/espionage agents, but it all clicks together once these individuals end up being sent out to their missions.

Who to look for? The biggest name is Simone Signoret in her first English-speaking role. She plays Michele, a Belgian refugee who has to prove herself to her fellow agents because of her past and…well, cuz she’s a woman. Beatty’s Philip is an interesting character who I would have liked to learn more about, a Catholic priest taking advantage of the relative freedoms offered to him as a member of the clergy. Jack Warner is the smooth-talking Max, Gordon Jackson as Jack, the quiet explosives expert, Paul Dupuis as Picquart, the Frenchman working with the Gestapo, Gisele Preville as Julie, precocious and curious, John Slater as Emile, a Frenchman torn between his duty and his family, Peter Illing as Andrew, the veteran agent with plenty of experience, and the always welcome James Robertson Justice as Ackerman, the station chief and commander.

If there’s an issue here, there are too many characters. Most of those mentioned above are more than capable of carrying movies on their own. My biggest criticism is that I would have liked to get to know more about them. Signoret is excellent as Michele, Jackson (later of The Great Escape fame as McDonald) is a quiet scene-stealer as the explosives expert, and Slater as Emile especially stand out. Justice too almost feels like he’s auditioning for his similarly scene-stealing part 14 years later in The Guns of Navarone. Too many interesting characters isn’t a bad thing, just a relative criticism.

The movie really hits its groove in its second half – 96-minute running time – as our agents parachute into Belgium with a variety of missions. Parts of the missions early on almost feel rushed (studio cuts?) until 2 aspects of the mission are revealed. One, there’s a traitor in the group. But who? Two, one agent is captured before he could swallow his suicide capsule and needs to be rescued. Naturally, he’s in a heavily guarded Gestapo prison. The rescue is underplayed and subtle but highly dramatic, incredibly atmospheric and the Belgian locations – filmed in black and white – are stunning to see. Never overdone, the action sequences are quick and harsh, realistic and straightforward. An excellent ending, and an especially strong last 45 minutes.

Also worth mentioning, intended or not. The influences movies like ‘Wind’ had our obvious, in characters, storytelling techniques, twists and turns and plenty of genre conventions. Films like The Train, Army of Shadows, Operation Crossbow and many more all have touches of this underrated British war film released in 1948. As well, Beatty would later play a key role in the espionage-fueled Where Eagles Dare as General Carnaby in 1967. Well worth seeking out.

Against the Wind (1948): ***/****


The Wrath of God (1972)

wogposSimply put, but…Robert Mitchum was cooler than you. He’s cooler than everybody. A Hollywood legend, Mitchum was one of the first true bad boys. He didn’t care. He did things his way, and his laid-back but memorable acting style produced plenty of classic movies and performances. One of my favorites? A brutally underrated, truly odd western that’s all but forgotten, 1972’s The Wrath of God.

It’s the 1920s in an unidentified Central American country and three unique individuals have been brought together — blackmailed — to perform a suicide mission. The unholy trinity includes Van Horne (Mitchum), a machine-gun toting, bank-robbing priest, Keogh (Ken Hutchison), an IRA gunman on the run, and Jennings (Victor Buono), a cashiered British army officer now with his hand in anything and everything illegal, including gun-running. Their mission? Kill a rogue army officer, Tomas de la Plata (Frank Langella), who causes constant trouble for the army and government. Their work is cut out for them as de la Plata lives up in the mountains surrounded by a small army of gunmen and a heavily fortified hacienda. Can the trio pull off the job, clear their names and get out alive?

I first caught this on TCM back in the early 2000s, then couldn’t find it, then finally tracked it down a few years later. It’s been a favorite ever since. Based off a novel by Jack Higgins (as James Graham), ‘Wrath’ is an oddity, a unique western that is unlike just about any other western I can think of. It’s so odd at times that a fair share of reviewers think it’s actually a spoof. My thought? It ain’t. Simple as that. From director Ralph Nelson, ‘Wrath’ is a western that while influenced by spaghetti westerns and the changing times for the American western, stands alone. It’s a funny, cynical, violent and for me, highly memorable flick. A gem, one I can go back and re-watch time and time again.

My best description is that ‘Wrath’ has style. Filmed on-location in Mexico, it feels authentic, like we’re watching the story take place where it did happen. Gorgeous looking flick with familiar locations you’ll have seen in other westerns, like Vera Cruz and The War Wagon. The final shootout at the de la Plata hacienda was shot in the same location as the finale to Vera Cruz, a ridiculously cool extended sequence. Composer Lalo Schifrin turns in a great score too — listen HERE and HERE — that’s jazzy and flamboyant at times, but also reminiscent of a spaghetti western score in other instances. An underrated score, especially driving the action scenes.

But back to that Mitchum guy. Underplaying his part but clearly having a ball, he adds a third “priest” part to his filmography, joining The Night of the Hunter and 5 Card Stud. His Father Van Horne has some secrets — explained late — but it’s such a fun part from the word go. When he makes his big reveal, taking out a Thompson sub-machine gun and mowing down a saloon full of bandits, it’s a genuine laugh out loud moment. It never lets up as Mitchum delivers a surprisingly layered part as Van Horne. What drives this quasi-priest? Is it greed or something else? Well worth finding out.

Rounding out the unholy trinity, Hutchison and Buono aren’t big stars, but they’re perfectly cast. The chemistry among the three actors is impeccable. Any big reason? A script that crackles with great dialogue and one memorable line after another. Jennings’ oft-repeated “We’ll get along famously!” is a favorite, as is Van Horne’s “All is not what it seems.” Check out IMDB’s Memorable Quotes (I added those quotes years ago. You’re welcome!) for a good sample of the quality of dialogue. One of my favorite — if unlikely — men-on-a-mission teams. Hard to beat a machine-gun toting priest, an IRA gunman and an overweight, hard-drinking gun-runner. Hutchisons’ Emmet also gets the love interest, a beautiful Indian girl, Chela (Paula Pritchett), who’s mute.

Mitchum, Hutchison and Buono dominate the screen, which is odd considering how low Emmet and Jennings are in the cast listing. The reasoning? The bigger names playing smaller parts, almost cameos. Langella hams it up as the unhinged Tomas, always seemingly on the brink of losing it. Oh, and he loathes priests (ALL priests) with a passion. In her last film, Rita Hayworth plays Tomas’ tortured mother, trying to hold it all together. Struggling with Alzheimer’s during filming, she apparently had trouble reciting/remembering lines. Also, John Colicos makes the most of a one-scene appearance as Colonel Santilla, the messenger of death and commander of the region who sends the trio on their suicide mission.

Also, look for familiar western faces in Gregory Sierra, Frank Ramirez, Enrique Lucero, Aurora Clavel, Chano Urueta and Jorge Russek in supporting parts. Sierra is especially good as Jurado, Tomas’ brutal, bullish enforcer.

Not a huge action movie, ‘Wrath’ saves its firepower for the last 30 minutes when Van Horne and Co. make their play against de la Plata. A bullet-riddled shootout in a village square packs a whallop, but the finale at the de la Plata hacienda is the best, most memorable part. Some twists, some awesome moments — Buono driving a Mercedes as a battering ram with one hand, blasting away with a machine gun with the other stands out — and plenty of action. Mitchum saves the best for last in a classic final line. A classic movie overall? No, not by a long shot, but one of my favorites and a hilariously entertaining western. A must for western fans, and well worth tracking down.

The Wrath of God (1972): *** 1/2 /****