Then Playing — Friday Foster; Tokyo Joe; The Return of Doctor X

Friday Foster (Arthur Marks, 1975). Based on a comic strip written by Jim Lawrence and drawn by Jorge Longarón that ran in the first half of the nineteen-seventies, Friday Foster features Pam Grier in the title role, a photojournalist who digs deeper and deeper into a vast conspiracy after a seemingly mundane assignment puts her on the scene of an assassination attempt on a Black billionaire (Thalmus Rasulala). Capably directed by Arthur Marks, the film is almost deliberately adrift and clumsy in ways that aren’t all that atypical for similarly slipshod exercises from the era (this is one of three starring vehicles for Pam Grier released in the year after the big hit Foxy Brown). It’s mostly fun to watch for the procession of terrific Black character actors who were otherwise too often underused in American cinema, including Godfrey Cambridge, Paul Benjamin, Jason Bernard, and the always great Yaphet Kotto. Best of all is Eartha Kitt, who blazes in as a fashion designer named Madame Rena. With nothing more than the force of her personality, she practically send everyone and everything around her tumbling like they we hit with a gale force wind.

Tokyo Joe (Stuart Heisler, 1949). Tokyo Joe is one of a handful of films made by Santana Productions, the production company Humphrey Bogart set up in part to wrangle away from the dissatisfactory pictures he felt were being offered to him by Warner Bros. In many particulars, Tokyo Joe recycles a lot of the same story elements that was routinely attached to Bogart from Casablanca on: He plays a terse, determined nightclub owner in a foreign locale who’s set upon winning back a lost love who’s married to someone else. Because the film is set in Japan instead of Morocco, Bogart (or mainly a mediocrely disguised stunt double) at least gets to engage in an impromptu martial arts bout with an old pal. That’s different. Jibing aside, those scenes of Bogart’s character, Joe Barrett, becoming reacquainted with Tokyo and the people and places he knew it from before the war are the film’s strongest, both because they include a little more humanity and acknowledge the complications that come from U.S. occupation of the country after World War II. As the main plot kicks in with its creaky crime flick mechanics, Tokyo Joe grows rote and therefore a little dull. Director Stuart Heisler’s slack pacing doesn’t help matters.

The Return of Doctor X (Vincent Sherman, 1939). Wisecracking reporter Walt Garrett (Wayne Morris) thinks he has quite the scoop when he stumbles on the murdered body of actress Angela Merrova (Lya Lys). When she turns up ver much alive a couple days later, Walt is flummoxed, so he looks into the situation with the help of a physician pal (Dennis Morgan). They discover insidious medical experiments conducted with the evident assistance of a mysterious figure introduced to them as Marshall Quesne (Humphrey Bogart). The Return of Doctor X is fine schlocky horror that treats the impossible with a playful get-a-load-of-this verve. Director Vincent Sherman keep the energy loping along nicely from scene to scene, using crack timing to get the most out of the wise guy dialogue and lurid doings. Bogart gives good creep in his role, at times almost channeling the unsettling demeanor of his future co-star Peter Lorre.

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