Recently Rated Movies: Catching Up with Christopher Lee (the actor AND my brother…) Pt. 3

Here is another round of capsule reviews for several of the Christopher Lee films I have been pounding down for the last couple of weeks. 

An interesting note: While I was in the midst of finishing up the first segment of this series, I received a phone call from my youngest brother, whose first and middle names are also Christopher Lee. I had titled this series "Catching Up with..." and then appended the title with "(the actor, not my brother)," but now I had literally caught up with A Christopher Lee. 

Yes, I didn't post the first two parts of this series until after I talked to him, but I decided to keep things in the order in which they were created, and that includes changing the title this time to reflect that very necessary contact. Regardless, it was so good to hear from him after over a year of radio silence, and I won't allow time to pass like that again.

And now, more capsule reviews of some smaller C. Lee flicks, and I must say that it is a very diverse mix of genres this time...

Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace (1962) [Sherlock Holmes und das Halsband des Todes]
Dir: Terence Fisher
TC4P Rating: 4

An extreme disappointment, given that the very idea of seeing Christopher Lee filming a Sherlock Holmes film just a couple of years after his part as Sir Henry Baskerville in a Hammer production is immensely appealing. But his wonderful voice is dubbed over in this film, as are all of the actors (including Thorley Walters as Dr. Watson), and so the world would have to wait many, many years to hear Lee actually produce sounds out of the mouth of literature's most famous detective.

Also adding to the disappointment is learning that the rather staid direction is done by none other than Terence Fisher, who was at the helm of all those early Hammer horror hits for Lee, including The Hound of the Baskervilles. What a difference four years and filming in Germany instead of Britain can make.

The film itself is not so much a coherent mystery as it is several small set pieces that never jell together. Apart from Lee, who at least shows that he is working hard and displays abundant energy in his role, the film comes off rather dull and uninteresting, and when added to my stated disappointment that one will not get to hear Lee as Holmes at all, lessens the effect of the film even more. Oh well, at least the sets look swell.


End of the World (1977)
Dir: John Hayes
TC4P Rating: 3

How many films do you know that start off with a public payphone exploding in front of a desperate priest played by Christopher Lee, followed by a coffee shop owner getting scalding by an exploding coffee machine and then electrocuted by a neon sign as he blindly crashes through the window at the front of his shop? And then Lee meets what appears to be his doppelgänger, who welcomes him home? It’s probably a very slim genre, comprised of just this poorly produced (by none other than Charles Band, creator of Laserblast and father of the Full Moon studio) and far too dark, alien invasion flick.

The film is stocked with Ed Wood-level character motivations and dialogue, which in itself would make this seem to be a must-watch for “bad movie” enthusiasts, a contention with which I will agree. Looking at a shopping list of the elements of this film — coded messages from space warning of massive natural disasters, aliens disguised as nuns, a host of well-known character actors (MacDonald Carey, Dean Jagger, Lew Ayres, Sue “Lolita” Lyon, and the aforementioned Lee) — one would think that at the very least you are going to be in for some good, cheap thrills. And how wrong you would be.

Director John Hayes, working since the early ‘60s, would end up his career for the most part making X-rated films under a pseudonym, but I am certain those were far better lit than this film, which seems to mistake a pitch black screen for large portions of the running time as “suspenseful”. When the lead character, a scientist, is harangued again and again by his superior to get back on his speaking tour, then you realize it is not the most exciting setting for science fiction fun. And when one finishes watching a film and the chief image one takes away from it is that of the same scientist sitting endlessly in a room full of archaic computers while the nonstop clacking of a computer keyboard is heard on the soundtrack, then saying the film is bereft of real action is a true understatement.


Jaguar Lives! (1979)
Dir: Ernest Pintoff
TC4P Rating: 5

I must admit that I knew nothing of the star of Jaguar Lives! — kickboxing champion Joe Lewis — going into watching the film. I have yet to see his other big film, Force: Five (1981), and I was also not aware that he was apparently the first choice to play the villain role taken memorably by Chuck Norris in Bruce Lee’s The Way of the Dragon, in the famous fight finale in the Roman Colosseum. Possibly things may have gone another way for Lewis’ Hollywood career had he not lost the part, but it is hard to tell. He is about as wooden an actor as Norris was at that same point in time, though I think Lewis is certainly better-looking. (And now ol' Chuck is going to kick me in the face for that...)

Jaguar Lives! is filmed quite well (for the most part), and veteran director Ernest Pintoff keeps things tight and moving from scene to scene in a film quite obviously meant to be a James Bond pastiche. This a case where having a large cast of famous character actors works to the film’s definite advantage. Apart from Woody Strode (as Lewis’ taciturn sensei), John Huston, and Capucine, the film has been stocked to the rafters with actors who have previous experience toying around in the Bond series: Christopher Lee (The Man with the Golden Gun), Donald Pleasence (You Only Live Twice), Joseph Wiseman (Dr. No), and Barbara Bach (The Spy Who Loved Me).

Lewis’ secret agent character, Jonathan Cross aka Jaguar, zips around the world meeting several seemingly villainous characters who might have some information that will help him figure out who is behind an international drug cartel that tried to have him killed. I assume the intent of the Bond connections is to keep the viewer guessing who the Big Bad is behind the plot’s machinations, but it is pretty easy to figure it out. Each stop about the globe also presents Lewis with an action scenario from which he must use his formidable martial arts skills to extricate himself. As long as you are willing to swing along with the episodic format and don’t suffer from a need for any sort of emotional depth from a film, Jaguar Lives! can be a pleasant little time-waster, but nothing more.


Penny and the Pownall Case (1948)
Dir: Slim Hand
TC4P Rating: 5

Once upon a time there was a British comic strip in The Daily Mirror named Jane, which featured the title character, Jane Gay, in various misadventures where she would inevitably get stripped down to her undies (and eventually, in 1943, down to even less). It was exceedingly popular in the UK and with soldiers, kindled American strips which were far tamer, was subsequently distributed and rejected in America, and inspired stage, television and screen versions throughout the decades. (Does anyone remember Jane and the Lost City from 1987? I do.)

The British-made Penny and the Pownall Case is not a version of Jane, but it does revolve around a comic strip exactly like Jane. The lead character is a comic artist’s model who ends up getting sucked into a plot involving Nazi war criminals. She also tends to get undressed here and there, but it is all done rather innocently, and there is nothing truly prurient about the film. Lead actress Peggy Evans seems to be having a lot of fun in the role, as her character manages to keep unsullied as she teams up with a detective to stop the bad guys. One of those bad guys, Christopher Lee, is only 25 or 26 years old in this, but he is already a magnetic screen presence. (Having that voice helps…)

Penny is barely of feature film length — only around 44 minutes — and is practically over before you realize it. In fact, I had to research whether it was an early television film before I watched it. The plot is predictable but quick, there are some good farcical bits involving an adjoining hotel suite, and the comic strip trappings add a welcome twist of novelty to what could be just another Nazi potboiler. But it needs a bit more, because it doesn’t come off as nourishing entertainment overall. Maybe if it was stretched out for another 15-20 minutes with a bit more character development, Penny and the Pownall Case could have been something more than just standard.

Comments

In this age of documentaries for every film, whether classic, obscure, or unfinished, and documentaries for seemingly every cult figure in psychotronic circles, I would still like to see a Charles Band documentary. I find him interesting in how sort of uninteresting he is. Not quite talented or visionary enough to be Roger Corman, but not so idiosyncratic and amateurish enough to be Ed Wood. I enjoy some of his work, and some of the Full Moon productions, but for the most part his output barely passes 'forgettable mediocrity' for me.
Rik Tod Johnson said…
I think a Band documentary would be dandy. He has been around long enough and produced enough films of interest to even the casual fan that I think there would be merit in someone doing this.

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