Captive Girl (1950)

Captive Girl (1950)‘Speak or you die! Where is she-devil?’

Jungle Jim is recruited by the local authorities to find a mysterious white girl who has been seen in a remote part of the jungle. Allegedly, she is accompanied by a tiger and has been terrorising the witchdoctor of a local tribe, whose young chief is returning home after being educated in America.

It’s Tarzan vs. Flash Gordon as Johnny Weismuller faces off against Larry ‘Buster’ Crabbe in a ferocious fight to the death in a sweltering Jungle Hell where life is cheap and production values are even cheaper. Yes, it’s another trip to the Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanical Gardens for the fourth in the ‘Jungle Jim’ series from legendary skinflint producer Sam Katzman, and, for anyone who has seen one of these pictures, this one holds no surprises whatsoever.

As usual, we begin with the story; a five minute exposition scene that tells us all that we need to know, and allows us to turn off our brains for the next 73 minutes. Our villain is evil witchdoctor Hakim (John Dehner from Staten Island) who is hunting jungle girl Anita Lhoest (from California) because she may have witnessed him murdering a couple of explorers many years earlier who may have been her parents. No prizes for guessing if that’s all true or not. Returning tribal chief Mahala (Rick Vallin from modern day Ukraine) is travelling into the jungle so he can turn his people from superstition to enlightenment. Weismuller is recruited to escort him back and to find the girl. Dastardly treasure hunter Crabbe is also in the area looking for the Lagoon of the Dead where Dehner has been sacrificing his victims.

So it’s business as usual with Weismuller accompanied on his journey by black bird Caw Caw and cute little dog Skipper, whose continued survival in the jungle is seriously impressive. We also get what seems to be an unofficial introduction to chimpanzee Tamba, who turns up from somewhere after a while and Weismuller calls by name. Although Lhoest has been evading everyone for years apparently, in the best Edgar Rice Burroughs tradition Weismuller finds her in less than ten minutes. Along the way, he gets to wrestle a crocodile again, although he keeps his shirt on this time around. But it is a nice echo of his Tarzan heyday.

Director William Berke had nine other pictures released the same year, including two more in this series; ‘Mark of the Gorilla’ (1950) and ‘Pygmy lsland’ (1950). ln fact, he ended up directing almost half of the 16 of Jungle Jim’s adventures. In a way, Crabbe’s presence in the picture is a pleasing one; as he’d already battled Weismuller in the big man’s only non-Jungle role, the bayou melodrama ‘Swamp Fire’ (1946). Also Flash Gordon and Jungle Jim were the only two significant creations of comic book artist Alex Raymond.

Captive Girl (1950)

‘What have I told you before about bringing back dead explorers?’

Rather strangely, we get the same repeated shot of Lhoest on a clifftop several times (no complaints from me, mind you) but she gets little screen time otherwise, most of which she spends skipping through the jungle. She doesn’t get all that much dialogue either, although what she has she handles well enough. I did wonder where she was getting her makeup done, though! These jungle girls always seem to be able to find a beauty parlour somewhere. On the debit side, both Dehner and Vallin play in blackface, something that would be rightly unacceptable now and must have looked pretty silly to audiences, even back in the more naive days of 1950.

Like Weismuller and Crabbe, Lhoest was a swimming champion who had beaten out a young Marilyn Monroe for the part of Daisy Mae in a big budget movie of ‘Lil Abner’. But that film was never made and this remains her only appearance on the silver screen. She certainly had the looks, with a dazzling smile and lively eyes, and filled out a two-piece tiger skin number in a very fetching way. But she preferred to devote her life to animal welfare, rather than acting.

At 73 minutes, this is actually one of the longest films of the series and boy, do those extra minutes drag. One of the dullest of Jim’s exploits and a seriously boring experience.

Space ls The Place (1974)

Space Is The Place (1974)‘l am the Alter-Destiny, the presence of the living myth.’

Sun Ra returns to Earth in his spaceship after travelling the cosmos in search of wisdom. He duels with the mysterious Overseer whilst opening an Outer Space Employment Agency and trying to convince the black youth of America to follow him to another planet.

Sun Ra was an avant-garde jazz musician, composer, poet, mystic and philosopher. He was also leader of the Arkestra for over 40 years, an ever-changing musical ensemble that made more than 100 albums and recorded over 1,000 songs. He was also known for his elaborate stage shows, which heavily featured Ancient Egyptian iconography and outer space trappings. He was also from the planet Saturn. Apparently.

The film opens with our mystical hero on an unnamed planet making plans to visit Earth and connect with his black brothers and sisters. There are some impressively trippy visuals to enjoy in this sequence, even if the great man’s intentions might seem a little vague to the uninitiated. From there we cut to a Chicago nightclub in 1943 where his performance on the keyboard creates some kind of supernatural event and a full-blown panic. Cut from there to a face-off in the desert opposite the white-suited Overseer (Ray Johnson), which involves drawing tarot cards and playing for the future of the Earth’s black people. From there it’s a strange musical piece followed by the Overseer cruising in his open top convertible and Sun Ra’s (unconvincing) spaceship shooting coloured rays as it prepares to land in Oakland so he can deliver his plans for the future. The media wait with bated breath for his proclamations! And all this in the first 15 minutes. Yes, folks, we’re definitely on the weird end of the banana here!

To be fair to the film, although it’s obviously low-budget and stitched together from various bits and pieces, director John Coney does manage to maintain a coherent narrative throughout (just!) as Sun Ra pursues his ministry on Earth whilst Johnson attempts to frustrate his efforts. The frequent cuts back to the confrontation in the desert, where Johnson keeps a running score on proceedings, is a fairly obvious nod to the soldier playing chess with Satan in Ingmar Bergman’s classic ‘The Seventh Seal’ (1957).

Space Is The Place (1974)

‘You sunk my battleship!’

There’s an unscripted feel to Sun Ra’s appearance at a black youth club, where members dis his silver shoes, and seem less than impressed by his somewhat vague declarations. Johnson turns to The Man for help, recruiting a couple of white NASA scientists to aid his cause. In a surprisingly unpleasant scene, they beat on a couple of prostitutes after being unable to perform and kidnap our mystical hero, forcing him to listen to marching band music as a form of torture.

What is perhaps the most surprising aspect of this cosmic groove is Sun Ra himself. He has no natural charisma in front of the camera at all, delivering his lines in a flat monotone and rarely allowing an expression to cross his face. This despite writing all his own dialogue. It’s left to Johnson, who had a bit in ‘Dirty Harry’ (1971), to do all the heavy lifting in the acting stakes and his breezy performance is the film’s greatest asset. There is some subtext to the film regarding the rights of black people in a white-controlled society, but it’s not particularly insightful, original or telling. How much an audience enjoys the film will, of course, but partly dependent on how much they dig the man’s sound, but for everyone else there’s little here but curiosity value.

Su Ra last departed this Earthly realm in 1993. He is not expected to return soon.

Silver Needle In The Sky (1954)

Silver Needle In The Sky (1954)‘It is on the X07 in the orbit of Paratain, a planetoid in the Jupiter equilateral.’

Top Space Ranger Rocky Jones and his crew from the United Worlds are entrusted with delivering a group of space ambassadors to an international space conference on a space station in a neutral area of space.

‘Rocky Jones, Space Ranger’ was a syndicated TV show created by Roland Reed Productions in 1954. The show ran for 39 episodes of 25 minutes each with stories that often played out over three episodes, making them ideal to edit together into feature-length productions. Whether that was the original intention of the filmmakers or not, it was undeniably a good business strategy and several of the resulting ‘movies’ played in theatres across the U.S. over the next couple of years.

Unsurprisingly, the show is completely studio bound and follows a set formula. In this week’s episode(s), Rocky (square-jawed Richard Crane) and his crew are given the mission of escorting space ambassadors to a top level meeting while villainess Cleolanta, Suzerain of Ophiucius (Patsy Parsons) tries to frustrate the peace process. Rather brilliantly, most of the diplomats wear top hat and tails and all of them carry briefcases. Rocky’s team consists of sidekick Winky (Scotty Beckett), navigator Vena (Sally Mansfield) and Junior Lieutenant Bobby (Robert Lyden), who is taken along because he knows how to keep the ship’s log, obviously a completely sound reason for taking a child on a highly important and dangerous secret mission.

This is all as bland and family friendly as only U.S. TV of the 1950s can possibly be, and all it’s likely to give a modern audience is a few laughs and a bit of a cringe. The ‘action’ is restricted to a few poorly dressed sets and mostly consists of endless conversations on the ’Astrophone’ (which comes with a ticker tape attachment for coded messages). ln fact, the amount of times someone picks up this damn device eventually goes from aggravating to hilarious and would make a fine drinking game if you need alcohol to survive the experience.

Silver Needle In The Sky (1954)

‘15,000 free texts a month? Is that all?’

The only real reason to watch this and, by far the most enjoyable aspect, is Parsons as the evil Cleolanta. She plots, she schemes, she has temper tantrums. She wears an evening gown, dangly earrings and a crown. She throws her big microphone about when she doesn’t get her way (which is all the time, of course). Perhaps she might achieve something if she ever left her office but why should she when she’s got such a big desk and a lot of paperwork?

In fact, there seem to be a worrying amount of desks still around in this silver, tinfoil future. Other advances in technology include a tool set consisting of a screwdriver, pliers and a hammer. One character recovering from a near-death experience doesn’t bother with going to sick bay to recover but has a nice sit down in the main control room instead.

What will not go down well in these more enlightened times is the films attitude towards women, in particular Vena. As a ‘Top Navigator’, she is told to remember to ‘pack her lipstick’ to which she acknowledges that it’s ‘more important to her than oxygen’ and wonders if they have beauty parlours on Paratain. She acts more like an air hostess than a navigator and when asked a basic question about the position of the ship, obviously hasn’t the slightest clue. Luckily, the answer is supplied by 10 year-old Bobby. Rocky and Winky find this most amusing, of course. Women, eh? l Hopeless. I suppose at least we don’t get any of that ‘A woman on my crew? Never!’ sort of b.s. so there is that, but it still doesn’t seem that gender equality has advanced all that much in the past couple of hundred years!

Good for a few giggles, but quite possibly a bit aggravating to anyone who doesn’t approach in the appropriate spirit.

The Death Ray of Dr Mabuse/The Secret of Dr Mabuse/Die Todesstrahlen des Dr Mabuse (1964)

The Death Ray of Dr Mabuse (1964)‘You are out and about with girls while I have to stay at this brothel and live like a nun.’

A British agent is sent to Malta where a top scientist is experimenting with a death ray on an offshore island. An unseen criminal mastermind and his troop of frogmen plan to get their hands on the device so that he can rule the world. Could this unseen villain really be the infamous Dr Mabuse?

World renowned film director Fritz Lang returned to his native Germany a decade and a half after the end of the World War Two to film the underrated ‘The Thousand Eyes of Dr Mabuse’ (1960). Although the film did not receive the critical plaudits that had greeted his previous excursions with the character in the 1920s and 1930s, the film was popular enough to spawn a series of five homegrown ‘Mabuse’ pictures released over the next five years, of which this was the final one.

Dr Mabuse is always a difficult proposition for a filmmaker. Unusually for a title character, he is always offscreen for the vast majority of the story. He’s a puppet master, the shadowy presence behind the scenes who pulls the strings of a large criminal organisation and manipulates the forces of law and order. Without that focus, audience attention switches to the activities of the good guys and the problem here is that the investigations of British agent Peter van Eyck are pretty underwhelming stuff.

We open with van Eyck investigating Professor Pohland (Walter Rilla) whose recent criminal activities were apparently provoked by the spirit of Mabuse. Pohland escapes but, despite this failure, van Eyck is assigned to Malta to investigate another scientist, Professor Larsen (O.E. Hasse) who is fooling about with a death ray. Not surprisingly, various nations are interested in this contraption which works using a synthetic ruby and a mirror. What is a surprise is that van Eyck uses his sometime girlfriend Judy (Rika Dialyna) as cover for the mission, the two allegedly being on honeymoon. Obviously, there were no qualified female agents available for the role. The local British secret service are located behind a pharmacy (and in a brothel) with operations directed by Admiral Quency (Leo Genn, complete with eyepatch, scarred face and stainless steel hand!) and his deputy Commander Adams (Robert Beatty).

What follows are some lacklustre espionage shenanigans as frogmen are washed up on the beach and van Eyck has a series of clandestine meetings with various femme fatales. These include the Professor’ s daughter (Yvonne Furneaux) and the secretary of the local museum director, played by Japanese actress Yôko Tani. The main thrust of the plot revolves around the secret identity of Mabuse rather than the death ray itself, which we never see in use. Could it be Hasse or his chess-playing partner Claudio Gora? Local playboy Gustavo Rojo, or his brother Massimo Pietobon? Or is Rilla still hanging around somewhere? Or, perish the thought, perhaps it’s Beatty or Genn?

The Death Ray of Dr Mabuse (1964)

She was never going to order extra large pilau rice with her curry again.

With so many suspects, and no real clues provided, the mystery is rather less than gripping and the audience is left with a parade of pretty dull action scenes, punctuated by van Eyck wrestling with various female members of the cast. Yes, it’s more like a half-hearted James Bond adventure than a Mabuse movie. There’s absolutely no sense of a vast criminal network or any trace of the sophisticated surveillance methods that made the character seem almost omnipotent in his earlier incarnations under Lang.

It’s a pity that the series lost its way so badly as the first couple of entries were really quite decent. Those featured ’Goldfinger’ himself, Gerte Frobe, as world-weary Kommissar Lohmann, and were placed in the hands of better directors than Hugo Fregonese who got the gig here. None of this is van Eyck’s fault, a capable leading man who had started his career as an assistant stage director with Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre. Recognition in front of the camera followed with a featured role in Henri-Georges Clouzot’s international hit ‘The Wages of Fear’ (1953) and he’d actually appeared in Lang’s 1960 Mabuse film. Furneaux starred opposite Christopher Lee in Hammer Studio’s ‘The Mummy’ (1959) and later appeared in smaller roles in Polanski’s ‘Repulsion’ (1965) and Buñuel’s ‘Belle de Jour’ (1967).

The ending of the film hints at a possible continuation of the series, but it’s no real surprise that it didn’t happen. Very disappointing.

ESPY/Esupai (1974)

ESPY (1974)‘The Prime Minister should be safe, unless an enormous amount of energy is directed at him.’

A race driver with latent psychokinetic abilities is recruited by a secret organisation of special agents with extra-sensory abilities. Their main mission is to combat a rogue group of similarly talented individuals who are trying to wipe out mankind by starting World War lll.

Fast moving Japanese spy thriller that comes with a heavy dose of science fiction and a very serious approach to its material. There are no gadgets or gimmicks here; just a conflict between two sets of super-humans who fight with conventional guns and weaponry as well as their own mental powers. The only nod toward humour comes with chief bad guy Yûzô Kayama, who is a typically caricatured Bond villain, although this is probably emphasised more than intended by the maniacal laughter on the English dub track. Surprisingly, he is given some motivation for his actions, which is quite refreshing.

The film opens with a near fatal accident on the race track for Masao Kusakari, who saves himself with a sudden, and unexpected, use of his telekinetic abilities. This draws the attention of the two star operatives of ESPY, Hiroshi Fujioka and pretty Kaoru Yumi. At the same time the ‘Counter-ESPY’ organisation (not a very original name) are busy assassinating NATO diplomats on their way to a peace conference. Their aim is to destabilise the political landscape and plunge the world into a nuclear holocaust which will wipe out normal people and leave them masters of the planet. It’s a somewhat flawed scheme in my opinion, given what little would remain after such a conflict and their own dubious survival, but they are super-humans so they’ve probably got something worked out.

ESPY (1974)

Isn’t anyone going to help me up?

The story never really develops beyond a series of action set-pieces, but at least they keep coming and, for the most part, are efficiently realised. The SFX are very much of their time, but they are some pleasingly practical stunts and explosions.

There’s also a surprising emphasis on the psychological cost of being an agent, with Kuskari seriously conflicted after he has killed an opponent, and Yumi struggling to come to terms with performing a nude striptease under hypnosis on the stage of a seedy nightclub.

The film’s main problem comes with its’ lack of definition of the protagonist’s abilities. They can see through walls, practice telepathy, move heavy objects, and even teleport in moments of great stress, but seem unable to interfere with the actions of others in any way, instead being forced into lots of gun battles and fisticuffs. There are no exploding body parts here, such as appeared in films that cover similar ground, like ‘The Power’ (1967) or David Cronenberg’s ‘Scanners’ (1981). One of the Counter-ESPY agents uses her dangly earrings to hypnotise subjects, instead of any mental abilities, and later on when Kusakari is at the mercy of the criminal gang in an abandoned warehouse, all they try is running him down with mechanical diggers and then shooting him (which they probably should have done in the first place if you think about it). But nothing more.

Director Jun Fukuda is mainly remembered for his association with the Godzilla films of the late 1960s and early 1970s; including romps such as ‘Son of Godzilla’ (1967), and the seriously funny ‘Godzilla Vs. Megalon’ (1973). Leading actors Kusakari and Fujioka are still active in the Japanese film industry as of 2016. Sequels to this film may have been intended but never appeared.

At times this plays a little like a U.S. TV pilot of the 1970s, but it’s a fairly entertaining way to spend 90 minutes if you approach it in the right spirit.

Jungle Jim (1948)

Jungle Jim (1948)‘You expected a man. People always do. l find it extremely annoying.’

Jungle Jim arranges a safari for a female scientist who is searching for a lost temple deep in the jungle and a tribe that may possess a cure for infant polio. Matters are complicated by a wandering photographer and the younger sister of Jim’s Head Man.

At the age of 44, Johnny Weismuller’s reign as the ‘King of the Jungle’ seemed to be over when he was let go by MGM after ‘Tarzan and the Mermaids’ (1948). But it was back to Africa (or the LA Botanical Gardens) almost immediately as his option was picked up by Columbia Studios, who starred him in a series of 16 pictures as ‘Jungle Jim’. This was essentially a less energetic version of the same character, he simply swapped his loincloth for a safari suit and traded in Cheetah for cute puppy Skipper and pet crow Caw Caw. Unfortunately, there was one major change; a tremendous dip in budget and production values, courtesy of notorious tightwad Sam Katzman.

Given the reduced circumstances, there is a lot less ambition on show than even the later MGM films possessed, and it’s evident right from this first film. Weismuller finds a dying native in the interior who is in possession of a golden vial covered in unknown hieroglyphics. Analysis of the contents brings lady scientist Virginia Grey, who is convinced of its miraculous medicinal properties. Weismuller takes her on safari to search for the legendary ‘lost temple’ that seems its likely source.

The plot is explained within the first five minutes, never develops any further, but was good enough to be used for most of the later entries in the series as well! Just how many ‘lost tribes’, ‘lost temples’ and ‘lost cities’ were there in the jungle just waiting for Weismuller to find? Lots, obviously. Strangely enough, there were always some diamonds/emeralds/gold or hidden art treasures lying about as well. And a gang of villainous white men intent on getting their hands on them.

Jungle Jim (1948)

‘Are we there yet?’

But there a couple of slight differences from the later films. For a start, there’s a lot more wildlife stock footage. We get an elephant stampede, lots of monkeys, prowling lions, the whole bit. This is a tell-tale sign of a cheap movie, of course, but its absence in the later films is curious. Was it actually cost-effective not to use library film as inserts? Hard to believe, but then it’s equally difficult to imagine Katzman passing up the chance of saving a few bucks here and there.

The other wrinkle is a half-baked romantic interest for Weismuller in the person of Head Man’s daughter, Zia (Lita Baron). Sure, it never develops beyond some mild flirtation on her part, but it’s something completely absent from subsequent productions.  The overall gender politics are just as tiresome as you’d expect with regard to Grey’s hard-ass scientist.  She starts off all business, of course, intent on proving herself as good as a man, but it’s not long before she’s screaming at a crocodile, falling down a slope, getting trapped by a tree root and being saved by Weismuller. It’s also good to see that a serious scientist always packs her bathing costume when going on safari, even if it leads to an encounter with a strange, tentacled beastie and another inevitable intervention by our muscle bound hero. Luckily, handsome George Reeves is lounging about taking a few holiday snaps, so there’s no obligation on Weismuller to get all gooey and romantic over her.

Grey was an actress who played second lead and supporting roles in some far bigger productions, notably ‘Another Thin Man’ (1939), ‘All That Heaven Allows’ (1955) and Samuel Fuller’s ‘The Naked Kiss’ (1964). Reeves became world famous as TV ‘Superman’ before his mysterious death in 1959. Baron’s exotic looks and dance moves got her roles of different ethnicities in pictures like ‘Bomba On Panther lsland’ (1949), ‘Savage Drums’ (1951) and ‘The Treasure of Pancho Villa’ (1955). She was actually Spanish.

The closing scene strongly suggests that our surviving heroes would return for future adventures, but in the end it was only Weismuller who came back. Along with Skipper and Caw Caw of course. But perhaps the others were well out of it. After all, it takes our heroes almost an hour of wandering about before they find the ‘lost temple’ and, by then, there’s very little of the picture left!

Rather a dull trip into the jungle of b-movies.

The Vampire and the Ballerina/L’amante del Vampiro (1960)

The Vampire and the Ballerina (1960)‘Because only l can be master of my world! Only me!’

A group of young dancers arrive in a remote forested region to practice their latest show away from the distractions offered by the bright lights of the city. Unfortunately, there have been a series of mysterious attacks on local women, and the ballerinas finds themselves in increasing danger, especially after some of their group take shelter in a nearby castle…

After the Second World War, it was understandable that it took a little time for European cinema to embrace the dark world of fictional horrors, and Italy was no exception. The groundwork was eventually laid by Riccardo Freda’s ‘I Vampiri’ (1957) and that proved enough of a success to prompt this effort from Renato Polselli. Unfortunately, his thunder was well and truly stolen by Mario Bava’s classic ‘Black Sunday/The Mask of Satan’ (1960), which actually went into production a few months later.

Polselli’s film is truly a mixed bag. On the one hand, we have some truly atmospheric sequences, aided immeasurably by crisp black and white photography, stylish visuals and an emphasis on suspense. There’s some excellent locations, including a real 15th Century castle and a striking landscape around a waterfall. The performances are good too, particularly from the delicious Héléne Remy as she turns slowly to the dark side. Polselli also gives the film an unusual mixture of gothic and contemporary trappings, which almost seems to place the action outside of any definite time period.

Unfortunately, once we get to the more explicit scenes of fangs and crosses, it all becomes rather crude and more than a little corny. If this were a more contemporary film, the suspicion would be that these sequences were reshoots imposed by the studio to make the film more commercial. Similarly, the girls’ rehearsals are more burlesque than ballet and were probably heavily featured in the trailer to appeal to a certain demographic. The problem is neatly summarised by the opening scene, which has some truly creepy moments, but, by revealing too much, immediately robs the story of any significant mystery or room to develop. Having said that, the symbiotic relationship between our two undead leads is fresh and unusual, and gives the conflict a little more of a twist than might have been expected. The final scenes on the castle battlements are also quite memorable.

The Vampire and the Ballerina (1960)

‘Ouch!’

The majority of the cast and crew were usually found plying their trade in togas with strongmen characters such as ‘Hercules’ and ‘Goliath’. Actor Walter Brandi seemed to enjoy the horror genre, though, particularly the undead, his later career containing roles in ‘The Playgirls and the Vampire’ (1960), ‘Slaughter of the Vampires’ (1964), ‘L’Orgie des Vampires’ (1964), ‘Terror Creatures from the Grave’ (1965) and ‘Bloody Pit of Horror’ (1965).

There are some good elements here, and Polselli undoubtedly had talent. Unfortunately, there’s an unmistakable feeling that, with better and subtler handling, this would have been a much better and far more memorable picture.

Unfortunately, its lack of sophistication leaves us with a flawed result and a sense of what might have been.