Thursday, November 13, 2008


If Paramount Pictures plans to produce a sequel to the new "Shaft," then they need to develop a stronger storyline and provide a bolder villain who can go the distance with "the cat who won't cop out when there is danger all about." Were it not for its blazing gunplay and blistering profanity, this second-rate but serviceable update of Gordon Park's "Shaft" would resemble an average episode of "NYPD Blue." The action scenes in director John Singleton's "Shaft" lack the bravura of the Richard Roundtree originals. Aside from an occasionally memorable one-liner, the dialogue pales by comparison with the lingo contrived by the late Oscar winning scenarist Ernest Tidyman. (Not only did Tidyman forge the "Shaft" character in a series of novels and two scripts, but he also penned the screenplay for director William Friedkin's "The French Connection!") The bankrupt quality in the creative storytelling process with "Shaft" (2000) boils down to its half-baked premise. No, Samuel L. Jackson doesn't replace Richard Roundtree as the seminal black private eye. Instead, he plays Shaft's nephew! Sounds like an urban contemporary alternative to "The Mask of Zorro!" Basically, "Shaft" focuses on hate crime. The racist son of a white real estate tycoon beats an unarmed African-American, Trey Howard (Mekhi Phifer of "Higher Learning"), to death outside an elite New York City restaurant. A white bartender on a cigarette break, Diane Palmieri (a frumpy Toni Collette of "The Sixth Sense"), witnesses the murder from across the street. Walter Wade Jr. (creepy Christian Bale of "American Psycho") threatens her about testifying against him in court. When Detective John Shaft" (Samuel L. Jackson of "Pulp Fiction") shows up in his stylist Armani leather trench coat, he punches the despicable Wade in the face twice, then devotes himself to tracking down the scared barkeep. He wants to sink Wade Jr., with Diane's testimony. Initially, Singleton characterizes Samuel L. Jackson's Shaft in one illuminating long shot that shows him striding up a street against on-coming traffic. Although Jackson's Shaft is the nephew to Roundtree's Shaft, he handles himself more like Inspector Harry Callahan's half-brother! Unfortunately, for Shaft, once Wade makes bail, the obnoxious anus skips town for sanctuary in far-off Switzerland. According to Wade in a telephone call to his nemesis, he made bail because of the two blows that Shaft dealt him that broke his nose. Meanwhile, in a move reminiscent of the Burt Reynolds' classic "Sharkey's Machine," Shaft finds himself reassigned from homicide to narcotics. Singleton reinvents Shaft as a volatile loose cannon on deck. After one of many drug busts, our reckless hero confronts a pint-sized "Scarface" wannabe, Peoples Hernandez (the impeccable Jeffry Wright of "Basquiat"), and locks the ice-pick toting drug dealer up on a technicality when the witless thug touches his bullet-proof vest.

Two years elapses, and Wade tries to sneak back into Gotham, only to be nabbed as he gets off his plane by Shaft. Shaft is not the only person who cannot figure out why Wade returned. The "Shaft" scenarists never furnish a reasonable explanation why such a worthless prick like Wade Jr., would come back to stand trial. His father and he tolerate each other, and he despises his old man's mistress. Such an obvious oversight reflects poorly on Singleton and his scripters. When the Honorable Dennis Bradford (Pat Hingle of "Hang'em High") releases Wade for a second time, Shaft savors a "Dirty Harry" moment. Defiantly, he hurls his N.Y.P.D. shield like a kung fu weapon so that it embeds itself in the wall inches from the judge's head. Easily, this is the beset single moment in "Shaft." Quitting the force (like hundreds of other renegade Hollywood cops) Shaft resolves to find Diane.

Christian Bale and Jeffry Wright make convincingly reptilian villains, but they emerge as narrative welterweights that don't stand a snowball's chance in hell against a heavyweight like Samuel L. Jackson's "Shaft." What "Shaft" desperately needs but cannot conjure up is a bold adversary like the villains in Gordon Park's "Shaft" & "Shaft's Big Score" and John Guillermin's "Shaft in Africa." When our villains argue, Singleton exposes how essentially weak they are compared to Shaft. Neither Wade nor the vertically challenged Peoples pose much of a threat to Shaft. "Eraser" heroine Vanessa Williams registers credibly as a tough-minded police woman who backs up Shaft in a tight spot. Dependable Dan Hedaya plays another crooked cop in the vein of the devious policeman that he portrayed in Norman Jewison's "The Hurricane." Ostensibly, "Shaft" unfolds as a gritty, authentic, but incredibly prosaic police procedural thriller with no romantic diversions. Everything in "Shaft" has been done before and done better. The filmmakers break no new ground dramatically or in terms of action stunts. Writer & director John Singleton of "Boyz N the Hood" and his scenarists Richard Price of "Clockers" and Shane Salerno of "Armageddon" let two banal subplots masquerade as the main plot. Action mystery thrillers are defined by the greed of the villain. The "Shaft" villains are mindless miscreants. Singleton combines them but together, they fail to substitute for a sturdy villain.

Credit the "Shaft" producers for having the good sense not to tamper with Isaac Hayes' immortal theme song. British composer David Arnold of "Tomorrow Never Dies" reprises elements of Hayes' Academy Award winning music throughout the action for maximum effect and succeeds without having to alter the tracks. The "Shaft" producers should be applauded also for giving the original "Shaft"—Richard Roundtree—a few scenes to recreate his groundbreaking blaxploitation character. Nevertheless, compared with the earlier "Shaft" epics, the new "Shaft" struggles lamely to make up for its dire lack of romance and larger-than-life villains. Jackson delivers an abrasive, often ballistic performance as the title hero and is very convincing. Ultimately, the premise that the new "Shaft" has to have the same name of his uncle and be a cop (even an ex-cop) shows how short-sighted the producers were when they decided to revive the "Shaft" franchise.


Fans of the HBO chick flick TV series "Sex in the City" (*** out of ****) won't find anything terribly surprising about the new feature-length film "Sex in the City" except that writer & director Michael Patrick King has refused to tamper with the surefire formula. King knows a thing or two about the characters that Sarah Jessica Parker, Cynthia Nixon, Kristen Davis and Kim Cattrall immortalized between 1998 and 2004 because he penned 22 episodes and helmed 10 of them. The big-screen adaptation of novelist Candace Bushnell's Cosmo-style characters who gossip about life, love, shoes, and sex in the Big Apple is a predictable, superficial, but fashionable exercise in materialism and narcissism. Our heroines deck themselves out in a number of outlandish, eye-catching outfits and celebrate the bonds of friendship even after adversity confronts them. Happily, nobody dies, contracts a life-threatening disease, or winds up in rehab for drug, spousal and/or alcohol abuse.

The worst thing about "Sex in the City" is that it is rather bland and its revelations won't hoist eyebrows. Occasionally, like its ground-breaking HBO series, this two-and-a-half-hour soap opera reminds us why it qualified for an R-rating with its nudity and sensuality. You'll get more than you bargained in this R-rated movie. When "Sex in the City" appears on DVD, you'll want to pause at least one close-up shot to check out some anatomical features.

As the story unfolds, Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker of "Failure to Launch") and Big (Chris Noth of NBC-TV's "Law & Order") have just moved into a posh Manhattan penthouse. Carrie ignores to the real estate agent when he observes that the last two married occupants ended their relationship and their lease with a malicious divorce. She and her gal pals, Miranda (Cynthia Nixon of "The Pelican Brief"), Charlotte (Kristin Davis of "The Shaggy Dog") and Samantha (Kim Cattrall of "Star Trek IV"), attend a jewelry auction. It seems that a wealthy man locked his girlfriend out of their house, and she has decided to make their break-up an event by auctioning off all the pricey jewelry that he bought her. Sexaholic Samantha has flown into New York City for the event. She spends the bulk of her time managing her live-in lover, TV celebrity 'Smith' Jerrold (Jason Lewis of "Havoc") who plays a hunk doctor. The gals applaud Carrie's new digs, but they wonder what will happen to her if Big ever gives her the boot.

One night, Big and Carrie discuss their relationship in light of their new penthouse apartment, and the two decide to tie the knot. Everybody is overjoyed about Big and Carrie's wedding. Things start to go seriously wrong. Miranda is appalled when her husband Steve (David Eigenberg of "The Mothman Prophecies") informs her about a one-time only extramarital affair. Lately, not only has Miranda has been so immersed in her law practice that she neglected satisfying her own husband, but she also failed to keep herself trimmed so that she doesn't appear too hirsute in a bathing suit. Meanwhile, Samantha hasn't been getting enough of her hunky blond lover 'Smith' because of her late night TV shooting schedule. The frustrated Samantha finds herself behaving like a voyeur as she watches by their next door neighbor Dante (newcomer Gilles Marini) who beds babes on an apparent 24/7 basis. Finally, after adopting an Asian orphan, Charlotte discovers to her surprise and happiness that she has gotten pregnant. When the day of Carrie and Big's wedding at the New York Public Library comes, Big gets cold-feet, cannot contact Carrie, and abandons her. Naturally, with 250 wedding guests awaiting her triumphant moment, Carrie is furious.

Of course, everything works out in the long run. There is nothing either deep or philosophical about "Sex and the City." Carrie, Samantha, Miranda, and Charlotte do a lot of drinking and talking. After Carrie's disastrous wedding, she finds it difficult to recover. Samantha arranges things so that all four of them can go to Mexico where the newlyweds were supposed to vacation. Once Carrie gets back to New York, she hires an assistant, Louise (Jennifer Hudson of "Dreamgirls"), to help her unpack and move back into her venerable old apartment. Louise has come to New York after her own similar debacle in St. Louis when she couldn't marry her boyfriend.

Out of the four, Samantha's antics stand out the most, especially when she turns her body into a sushi buffet for her lover. On the other hand, Kristen's saga is the least compelling, except when he suffers from Montezuma's revenge in Mexico. Miranda comes off as the least sympathetic. Meanwhile, the men are relegated to the sidelines. The dialogue has its witty moments, particularly when Kristen pleads with her friends to substitute another word for 'sex' when they are around her impressionable Chinese daughter. Aptly, our heroines revert to code, and they refer to coitus as coloring with crayons. "Big likes to color outside the lines," Carrie boasts to her friends about their amorous adventures. Samantha's pet pooch provides some laugh-out-aloud moments with its randy shenanigans.

"Sex in the City" doesn't differ drastically from the award winning HBO cable series that spawned it. The more that Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte, and Samantha change, the more that this charismatic quartet remains the same.


Warner Brothers released its second spy & saboteur "B" movie, "Secret Enemies" (** out of ****) on August 18, 1942. Essentially, the studio commissioned scenarist Raymond L. Schrock to rewrite Seton I. Miller's script for the seminal 1935 James Cagney thriller G-Man about how FBI obtained the right to arm themselves against trigger-happy hoodlums. Unlike G-Men, however, "Secret Enemies" is about a federal law enforcement agency called the Bureau of Investigation, obviously a veiled reference to J. Edgar Hoover's crime-stoppers.

The day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, a New York City motel owner of German ancestry, Henry Bremmer, worries about his wife. Apparently, Mrs. Bremmer has been sick and is in Germany. Bremmer fears that the Nazis will put his wife in a concentration camp, so implores his long-time friend and attorney Carl Becker (Craig Stevens) help him get her out of Germany before Hitler declares war. Becker flies to Washington, D.C., queries the State Department and talks to the German Embassy, but he gets nowhere. Meanwhile, Bremmer's chauffeur Fred informs his boss that he knows a man with influence. Desperately, Bremmer appeals to Dr. Woodford (Robert Warwick), alias Otto Zimmer, a notorious Nazi spy on the B.O.I.'s list of wanted men, to help him get his wife safely back to America. Zimmer strikes a bargain with Bremmer. He will get Bremmer's wife out of Germany in exchange for Bremmer letting Zimmer's spy ring headquarter themselves in Bremmer's motel. Later, Becker meets his old friend Jim Jackson (Charles Lang), who stops off at Becker's office and mentions in passing that he is on a spy manhunt with a B.O.I agent and that they are staying in a nearby Washington motel. Becker convinces Jackson to move into Bremmer's motel, so he can join later in the evening and he can meet Becker's girlfriend. The Nazi agent put Jackson into a room with its windows nailed shut and give him a special battery operated radio to listen to music during a practice blackout drill later in the evening. Jackson switches on the radio and the mechanism cracks a vial of deadly but odorless gas hidden in the radio. Jackson dies and Zimmer and his henchmen arrange Jackson body so that the coroner will rule his death a suicide. Carl Becker refuses to believe that his friend committed suicide. Jackson's partner John Trent (John Ridgely) suspects that Becker is in cahoots with the Nazi spies.

Meanwhile, Becker contacts several authorities, but he gets nowhere. After speaking with a Bureau representative, a frustrated Becker decides to join the Bureau, something that Jackson had been pushing him to do. Initially, Trent does not trust Becker, but he changes his mind as he teachers the former attorney the ropes of being a Bureau agent. When another Bureau agent dies under mysterious circumstances, the agency dispatches Trent and the agent of his choice to investigate the death. Trent chooses Becker. Eventually, Becker learns that the Nazis have been blackmailing Bremmer. The Bureau arrests Zimmer, but later his henchman and he escape from their escort on the train. The German fifth columnists take refuge in the mountains at a cabin owned by Bremmer. Before Bremmer leaves against will to accompany the Nazis, he throws a photo of his hunting lodge on his bed. When Becker and Trent search Bremmer's bedroom, they find the photo and put two plus two together. The Bureau surrounds the lodge and shoots it out with the spies. While the Bureau agents are exchanging gunfire with the spies, Bremmer dies in a back room where he keeps a short-wave radio. Before he dies, he manages to contact the authorities about a U-boat off the Eastern coast and the Navy sinks the submarine. Again, the agile Zimmer escapes and take refuge with Paula Fengler, an attractive nightclub singer that Becker has been dating. Carl guns Zimmer down at Paula's room, and then he takes her into custody for being a member of the spy ring. Altogether, "Secret Enemies" is nothing compared with "G-Men, but it made for an interesting, fast-paced but ultimately disposable wartime thriller.


"Ace High" (***1/2 out of ****) qualifies as one of the better hybrid action/comedy spaghetti westerns that followed in the wake of Sergio Leone's trend-setting bounty hunter movie "Fistful of Dollars." Variously titled overseas as either "Revenge In El Paso" or "Four Gunmen of Ave Maria," this handsomely-produced, elaborately-staged, sun-drenched, shoot'em up shares something in common with the Lee Van Cleef oater "Death Rides A Horse" (1968) in that our lice-ridden hero (EIi Wallach of "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly") got double-crossed by his outlaw buddies and left behind for the law to capture while they made good their escape. A two-bit bandit of Greek heritage, Cacopoulos winds up serving fifteen years in prison. Once he gets out of prison, he is framed by crooked banker Harold ("Trinity" alumnus Steffen Zacharias in a dramatic role) for a murder that he didn't commit, and then sentenced to be strung up by the neck. Although this Giuseppe Colizzi written & directed effort contains about as many twists and turns as a diamond-back rattlesnake, the scripting is often haphazard but nevertheless entertaining. Our heroes participate briefly in the Mexican revolution, a favorite theme of late 1960s and early 1970s spaghetti westerns, which hikes the body count substantially. Italian western buffs who aren't familiar with this well choreographed dustraiser need to saddle up and watch the bare bones Paramount DVD with enhanced widescreen to see what other less well-known helmers were doing with the genre while Leone rode herd over sagebrushers.

For the record, blue-eyed Terence Hill plays Cat Stevens (like the folk singer but no relation to him) and Bud Spencer co-stars as Hutch, his beefy, barrel-chested sidekick who shuns a Stetson. They are an arresting pair to watch in their sweaty, greasy, western outfits, on horseback in the blinding sun prancing around mainly on the plains of Almeria, Andalucia, Spain, where veteran cinematographer Marcello ("Assignment Outer Space" & "The Stranger Returns") Masciocchi lensed this sprawling western in widescreen splendor. A clue to its filming location is the lopsided anvil-shaped mountain in the background that dominates the long scenes not only in "Ace High" but also "For A Few Dollars More" and "The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly" the way that the Paramount logo mountain stood out against the studio sets in the old "Bonanza" TV series. Another dead giveaway that this is a foreign western is the perfectly synchronized but too cool dubbing of Hill and Spencer. Their perfectly modulated dialogue foreshadows the dubbing on anime adventures of the 1990s. Some of the dialogue sounds like it was translated into the English by foreigners, because nobody would talk that way, but that's what makes Italian movies of any genre so much fun.

Actually, "Ace High" is the second entry in the only cinematic trilogy that Hill and Spencer starred in. Remember, they only did two "Trinity" movies together. "Ace High" picks up where Colizzi's "God Forgives, But I Don't" wrapped up with the explosive death of bandit Bill San Antonio (American expatriate Frank Wolff of "A Stranger In Town"). Our heroes trundle into town with a wagon load of gold, $300-thousand, and try to collect the bounty on Bill, though all they have of him is his boots and hat. When they cannot convince the law as to the authenticity of their claim, they traipse over to Harold's Bank and blackmail him into giving them an undisclosed fortune that Hutch at least plans to retire on and run a small ranch. Seems that the late Bill San Antonio and Harold were in co-hoots in stealing from the bank. Spaghetti westerns always had more plot than they needed. One of the neat touches that occur through "Ace High" is little bits and pieces like the dusty boot prints that Cat and Hutch leave when they saunter across Harold's blood red carpet in this upstairs office. Meanwhile, Harold springs Cacopoulos and hopes that he will kill Cat and Hutch. Caco does steal their newly acquired fortune, but not before he deals with the slippery as a rattlesnake Harold, one of the three men who set him afoot after a bank robbery. Anyway, Cat and Hutch chase Caco across the parched southwest and run across a traveling circus sideshow Thomas (Brock Peters) who performs high-wire (in this case—rope) acts. Eventually, all team up to rob a casino—think a lean, mean, "Ocean's Eleven" with only one casino. The music is pure spaghetti.

"Ace High" is tops!


The latest Steven Seagal straight-to-DVD actioneer "Pistol Whipped" is fit fare only for hardcore Steven Seagal completists. Loaded with creaky clichés and conventions galore, this predictable crime thriller amounts to assault with a really dull weapon. Little-known Netherlands born director Roel Reiné displays minimal visual and dramatic flair, and "Pistol Whipped" provides two mediocre car stunts and some noisy but nondescript firefights. Reiné doesn't break out the blood squibs until the final daylight massacre in a cemetery, but his pedestrian gunfight choreography generates little excitement or adrenalin. No, the lackluster "Pistol Whipped" isn't a tenth as invigorating as Seagal's above average previous DVD thriller--2007's "Urban Justice" with comedian Eddie Griffin.

What sets "Pistol Whipped" apart from other Seagal sagas is its hero, Matt Connor, is scraping the bottom of the barrel. Essentially, "Pistol Whipped" focuses on Matt's recovery and redemption. However, nobody but a sympathetic Catholic priest, Father Joe (Bernie McInerney of "Dan in Real Life"), believes Matt possesses a shred of decency. At the beginning, Father Joe describes Matt in uncomplimentary terms. "You're not a good guy. You sit around all day, you do nothing with your life, living off God knows what. You had a dark past before I met you, then you're a copy and they kicked you out. I'll bet you don't see your daughter, one day out of twenty." Director Reiné and "Ronin" scenarist J.D. Zeik use Matt's conversations with Father Joe and the dialogue in his confession sessions to flesh out our troubled hero's back story. Father Joe becomes one of Matt's closest friends, a plot convention that puts him on the endangered friends' list.

Since he retired from working as an assassin, Matt has stumbled into a swamp of booze and suffers from a gambling addiction. One night, our resilient protagonist finds himself confronting the Old Man (Lance Henriksen of "Hard Target") in a deserted theatre with an armed and dangerous dude named Blue (Paul Calderon of "Pulp Fiction") pointing a pistol to Matt's skull. The enigmatic Old Man has bought up all of Matt's markers. Those markers tote up to well over a million dollars. The Old Man explains that our hero can erase his gambling debts by participating in an enterprise that he describes as "extracurricular justice" for hoodlums beyond the law. Blue serves as the Old Man's intermediary with Matt and the ever vigilant Blue stays one step behind Matt at all times. Reluctantly, Matt accepts the offer, shadows an ugly, obnoxious mafia hood, Bruno (Arthur J. Nascarella of HBO's "The Sopranos"), and puts a bullet in his head him in a public restaurant.

Later, we learn Matt was once a cop, and his daughter's stepfather, Steve (Mark Elliot Wilson of "World Trade Center"), was one of his closest pals on the force. Matt fell on hard times with his gambling, and he faced dismissal after his partner vanished under questionable circumstances with a fortune in stolen narcotics. Matt should have been with his partner. Instead, he was gambling at the horse races. Steve lied and convinced his superiors that Matt was on a stakeout with him to keep Matt from being busted. Anyway, Matt's bosses later dismissed him. Nonetheless, Matt holds Steve in high esteem until his new employers reveal that Steve is far from immaculate. Initially, Matt refuses to believe his new employers until Father Joe winds up dead with his throat slashed in the confessional box.

Seagal shoots, stabs, and smashes up a steady stream of assailants with his trademark aikido technique throughout "Pistol Whipped," but he might as well have been in a bowling alley knocking down ten-pins for all of the difficulty that his adversaries pose. Of course, our hero never breaks a sweat. Amazingly, as paunchy as Seagal has grown, he still knows how to propel his massive bulk about without looking entirely ridiculous. Naturally, the dastardly bad guys abduct his little girl, but Seagal furnishes them with their just comeuppance. Despite its R-rating for profanity, strong violence, and sexual content, "Pistol Whipped" lacks the high body count, ribald profanity, and the memorable villains of "Urban Justice." The villains lack menace, and the plot twists don't take your breath away. Lance Henriksen appears briefly in three scenes so you barely catch a glimpse of him. "Pulp Fiction" actor Paul Calderon registers strongly as an egotistical hit-man. Naturally, Seagal delivers his typically impassive performance.

Unless you're a Steven Seagal completest, you're going to feel gypped by "Pistol Whipped."


Too many dull interludes and not enough derring-do derails this gritty, atmospheric European melodrama about an ex-Interpol agent (rugged looking Thomas Tryon of "The Cardinal") who is hired by an infamous drug-lord Marcos (Jose Bodalo of "Captain Apache) to find a missing shipment of narcotics. Along the way our hero hooks up with a hippie chick with a guitar, Jill (Lorenza Guerrieri of "Operation Snafu") whom he uses to act as a cover during his investigation. Inexplicably, in the middle of this Euro thriller, Richard Deacon of "The Dick Van Dyke Show" appears briefly as a records clerk.

The Spanish scenery is spectacular and the photography is breathtaking, but there simply isn't enough intrigue to fuel this indifferent actioneer. A scene near the beginning where the villains conceal a shipment of narcotics under the hood of their automobile is cool and director Julio Coll's understated staging of their demise in hail of gunfire during a downpour generates a modicum of excitement. There's also a decent scene in a garage where out hero gets doused with gas. The problem here is that the action lags between the better scenes. Sergio Donati, who co-scripted with Sergio Leone on "For A Few Dollars More" and "Duck, You Sucker," contributed to the loquacious screenplay. The chief villain Marcos sports a pair of spectacles with one clear lens and a dark lens. He is ruthless but he isn't as ruthless as he needs to be to stand out from the pack. This disposable thriller is no diamond in the rough and only die-hard action fans who want to say that they have seen it for the record need waste their time on it.


The live-action CBS-TV "Suspense" anthology presentation of Edgar Allan Poe's classic tale of terror "The Cask of Amontillado" updates the author's 1846 short story (first published in the magazine "Godey's Lady's Book") with its eighteenth century setting so that the action takes place just after World War II has ended, and everybody is celebrating the success of the Allied victory over Hitler. A U.S.A.F.F. sergeant (Ray Walston of "My Favorite Martian") approaches his intoxicated superior officer, a major (Frank Marth of "Satan's School for Girls") and explains that the Count (Romney Brent of "The Sign of Zorro") has come to report a murder. The major collapses in a drunken stupor onto a nearby cot, and the sergeant decides to transcribe the Count's deposition in short-hand. The Count, an older looking gentleman with patrician features, a neatly clipped mustache, a trim Vandyke beard, in the wardrobe of an aristocrat, primly informs the sergeant that the palace where the Americans are billeted once belonged to him. They sit down, and the Count begins his story.

"Early in the war," he states, "when the Fascists were in full power, I had to give the property to a General Fortunato. Actually, Fortunato used to be a stable boy here, but he rose by devious means until he became one of Mussolini's favorites and after that a general." The Count informs the sergeant that far beneath the palace lays a catacomb where "for thousands of years my ancestors have been buried . . . " The besotted major revives briefly to point out that in the catacomb is about a quarter of a mile below "down a long spiral staircase every few steps a corridor leads off." The officer pronounces it the greatest wine cellar that he has ever seen during the three years that he has spent in Italy. The sergeant mentions to the Count that it is off bounds to the troops. However, by that time, the major has passed out for good. The Count goes on to say that the catacomb: "It is so far down it is actually under a river bed." When the Fascists came to power, explains the Count, General Fortunato (Bela Lugosi of "Dracula") commandeered the palace and forced the Count to let him marry the Count's "youngest and dearest sister." The sergeant suggests that the Count should have refused, but the Count reminds him that Fortunato could summon storm troopers and resort to torture chambers. Fortunato confined the Count and his wife to a small suite over the stable. At this point, "3:10 to Yuma" writer Halsted Welles and "Never Love A Stranger" director Robert Stevens shift the story into flashback mode at about six minutes into the action.

The Count works in an office and his sister in the hospital. Meanwhile, the Count's snooty wife dines with the general on the terrace. The amorous but disheveled general and the Count's wife discuss their relationship. Fortunato values his sister-in-law's judgment above that of his simpleton wife. Nevertheless, he fails to convince her to accompany him to Rome. She refuses because she feels their flirtatious behavior appear too brazen. Stevens shifts back to the present in 8 minutes so that he can see the sergeant light up a cigarette and say: "And then?" Stevens racks focus from the sergeant to the flashback again. A year later, Fortunato returns to the palace. The general's wife has died and the Count's wife has moved to Rome. Indeed, Fortunato is bent on killing the Count. Fortunato's infidelity with the Count's wife precipitates his moral demise and seals his doom.

The Count and General Fortunato spend more of their time together in the second act traipsing down the eternal spiral staircase. Initially, they are lounging on the terrace when the Count reveals to the general that he has bought a cask of amontillado from a black marketer and has hidden it in the catacomb. Fortunato demands to taste his share of it. Eventually, the Count lures him into a nave that is partially bricked up. He gets the drop on Fortunato, appropriates his revolver, and claps him in shackles facing the wall. Afterward, he bricks up the wall completely, and the cries of Fortunato from behind the wall are haunting. Essentially, the entire story serves as the Count's confession. He explains that he fled to Switzerland afterward and then joined the anti-Nazi underground. Finally, the story resumes in the present day, the smashed major is sitting up and listening as attentively to the Count as the sergeant. As the story concludes, the Count leaves his fate to judgment.

Welles' talkative teleplay provides a wealth of pertinent plot details that foreshadow events in the first and second acts, primarily the geographical logistics. Lugosi delivers the best line of dialogue: "You know, life is nothing but . . . uh . . . a lot of steps, either you go up, or you go down." Stevens doesn't let the action dawdle. In extreme contrast to his supernatural horror roles, Bela Lugosi is superb as the drunken, egotistical Italian general that winds up shackled in a nave. Walston is memorable as a gum-chewing sergeant who uses slang in the modern day sequences. Alas, Romney Brent delivers the only flawed performance. During his expository scene about his sister having to marry Fortunato, he goofs up and refers to her as his daughter but he recovers quickly.

The original Poe story never specified what triggered the Count's murderous rage. Indeed, the idea of being burying alive—in this instance, immurement—was a fear that preoccupied Poe. Immurement occurs when an individual is trapped and bricked up within a building and left to starve or dehydrate to death. The chief problem with this otherwise competently done drama is its flimsy sets and props. The walls of the spiral staircase set flutter when the actors breeze past them. Clearly, "Suspense" had to cut corners to keep their production costs down.


J. Lee Thompson's "The Evil That Men Do" (*** out of ****) casts tough guy actor Charles Bronson of the "Death Wish" franchise as a no-nonsense professional killer who reluctantly comes out of retirement on his desert island to eliminate an individual who specializes in human torture. Dr. Clement Molloch (Joseph Maher of "Heaven Can Wait") interrogates and tortures prisoners for Third World Latin American dictators. The villain's surname 'Molloch' is a variation of the word 'Moloch,' an Old Testament god of the Ammonites and the Phoenicians to whom children were sacrificed by burning. The Molloch here doesn't torture children, but he is appropriately nefarious when he makes his adult victims suffer. Unquestionably, the evil doctor is a human rights violator like few you will ever see in movies. The scene at the outset of the action where his men and he attach electrodes to the nipples and genitals of a highly respected journalist Jorge Hidalgo (Mexican actor Jorge Humberto Robles) and gives him bursts to electricity to learn what he knows is pretty strong stuff even for an R-rated movie. Mind you, Thompson doesn't show the devastated areas, we simply see a completely nude man hanging in a sling with the wires trailing from his chest and pelvis. Dr. Hector Lomelin (Jose Ferrer of "The Shrike") visits Holland (Charles Bronson) on his island, where he resides in a kind of self-imposed exile and asks him to kill Molloch. Holland is saddened by the news of his journalist friend's death and then he watches several videos that Lomelin provides of interviews with Molloch's victims and hears about the man's horrendous crimes against mankind. Nevertheless, Holland refuses to accept Lomelin's offer until a later scene when he shows up unexpectedly at the professor's class room.

Nothing gets in Holland's way once he takes the job. He refuses to work for pay. He arranges for Lomelin to get him a woman and a child to pose as his wife and daughter so that he will attract less attention from the locals. In one amusing scene, Holland and his faux wife Rhiana Hidalgo, wife of the death journalist (Theresa Saldana of "Defiance") enter a dive of a bar. While Holland gets their drinks, an enormous Hispanic guy decides to join them and fondle Rhiana. Holland surprises this gigantic hombre by knocking the table out of the way and seizing the dastard by the testicles and crushing them in the iron grip of his fist. Of course, this hulk crumples into a huddle of arms and legs at Holland's feet and offers no further interference. This display of self-defense attracts the attention of Molloch's bodyguard, Randolph (Raymond St. Jacques of "Cotton Comes to Harlem") and he joins our hero and heroine. Shrewdly, Holland tells Randolph that Rhiana and he are looking for someone else to have sex with and the deal is sealed. They go back to Holland's motel and Holland immediately kills Randolph with a knife and hangs him upside down to bleed his corpse out in the shower.

"Guns of Navarone" director J. Lee Thompson pulls no punches in this hard-as-nails thriller with his depiction of either Molloch's savage torture techniques or Holland's icy methods of disposing with his antagonists. Consequently, "The Evil That Men Do" still retains its edgy quality some twenty years after its initial release. On the other hand, Thompson doesn't resort to sensationalism for the sake of sensationalism, and this thriller is fairly straightforward without any outlandish or unbelievable scenes. This is one reason that I think makes it so good. The closest that you get to exploitative sleaziness involves Molloch's evil sister Claire (Antoinette Bower)who is a lesbian. Another scene has our hero wielding a mean pump action shotgun with deadly proficiency. Although he was past his prime at this point in his career, Bronson is nevertheless in fine form as the gimlet-eyed, tight-lipped assassin. The grim finale at a mining compound where Molloch gets his comeuppance from past disfigured victims resembles the ending of Todd Browning's horror classic "Freaks." The miners surround Molloch's car and shove long spikes through it with the villain trapped in the back seat with nowhere to run. The wild thing is that Joseph Maher is totally convincing as the heinous villain, but as an actor he didn't specialize in villainous roles. Theresa Saldana is convincing as Jorge's wife who accompanies Holland on his mission. People who prefer their crime dramas with a hard boiled intensity will savor this grim saga. Ken Thorne's offbeat music is a plus.