Sunday, December 29, 2013

the best classic movies watched in 2013

The high points of my classic movies viewing in 2013:

The Cobweb (1955). Vincente Minnelli goes right over the top with this wonderfully crazy high camp psychiatry melodrama.

Johnny Eager (1941). Fine gangster movie with some claim to being at last a proto-noir, starring the underrated Robert Taylor.

The Fountainhead (1949). Stylistically and thematically an extremely unusual and unconventional but fascinating movie.

A Colt Is My Passport (1967). Very stylish Japanese film noir.

The Love Parade (1929). The Lubitsch Touch at its best.

Nowhere To Go (1958). Neglected British film noir gem from Ealing Studios (of all people).

The Bank Dick (1940). Very very funny W. C. Fields classic.

The Lineup (1958). Fast-moving action-packed film noir from Don Siegel.

The Blue Max (1966). Visually superb, and s subtle and intelligent war movie.

Underworld USA (1961). Moody and unconventional Sam Fuller noir.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Cruel Gun Story (1964)

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Cruel Gun Story (Kenjû zankoku monogatari) is a 1964 Nikkatsu crime thriller that proves to be a fine illustration of the best and the worst characteristics of Japanese film noir.

Togawa (Jô Shishido) gets early release from prison, arranged for him by a mobster who wants his services for a big heist he is planning. A very big heist. The plan is to steal the takings from the Japanese Derby from an armoured car. The armoured car will be ambushed soon after leaving the racetrack. Togawa finds himself working with a motley assortment of hoodlums on this job. The tensions between the gang members are running high even before the job is pulled and so it’s no surprise that it all goes horribly wrong.

The plan was clever enough and the gang steals not just the money but the whole armoured car, including the driver and the guards.

The double-crosses start almost immediately and they steadily escalate. Everyone is double-crossing everyone else only to be double-crossed themselves.

There are so many betrayals that trying to describe the plot would be futile. The body count is enormous with endless gun battles interspersed with kidnappings and explosions.

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Togawa is the classic doomed noir protagonist. We’re supposed to regard him as the hero and in order to enlist the audience’s sympathies we get a nauseatingly maudlin and self-pitying backstory. Togawa isn’t really a bad man. He was driven to violence when his sister was crippled in a traffic accident. Now Togawa wants money, lots of it, to pay for an operation so his sister will be able to walk again. The sentimentality is laid on by the truckload.

The sentimentality is bad enough but it’s combined with an extraordinary degree of adolescent moral nihilism. Everybody is corrupt. And of course it’s all the fault of the Americans. Tedious knee-jerk anti-Americanism is one of the more repulsive features of 1960s and 1970s Japanese cinema. It’s almost always combined with an equally irritating tendency to indulge in self-loathing. Any sane person would have regarded the postwar Japanese economic miracle as a very good thing indeed, but of course intellectuals and creative artists regarded it as a very bad thing. Who wants security, stability, freedom and prosperity?

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The self-pitying hero-as-victim is something you tend to expect in film noir but this movie gives us not just one but a whole swag of self-pitying victims.

This movie obviously has some very irritating vices but fortunately it also has some impressive virtues. The content might be dubious but the style is breathtaking. Director Takumi Furukawa pulls off one stunning visual set-piece after another. There are a lot of action scenes and they’re superbly staged. The feel is very film noir. The movie was shot in black-and-white and in Nikkatsu’s version of Cinemascope and Saburo Isayama’s cinematography is moody and magnificent.

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And of course this movie has iconic Japanese noir star Jô Shishido. He manages to negotiate his way through the sentimental sludge and no matter how contemptible Togawa might be his performance is still watchable. When it comes to cinematic cool they don’t come much cooler than Jô Shishido.

The movie’s biggest single flaw is that the characters are almost all detestable. It’s hard to think of a single character with a single redeeming quality.

The tensions between the characters fail to generate much interest because we already know that everyone is going to be double-crossed and it all becomes rather predictable. Both the betrayals and the violence lack impact because they’re so absurdly overdone.

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This is one of the five movies in Criterion’s Eclipse Series Nikkatsu Noir DVD boxed set. The transfer is superlative. The paucity of extras is a disappointment. All we get are some cliché liner notes that spin us a lot of silly film school claptrap.

Assuming that you can tolerate its flaws, which are both numerous and severe, you might find Cruel Gun Story to be worth watching as an exercise in pure cinematic style.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Mr Moto Takes a Chance (1938)

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Mr Moto Takes a Chance was the fourth of the eight Mr Moto films made by 20th Century-Fox in the late 1930s. They were B-movies but they were extremely popular and they provided Peter Lorre with the launching pad for his much more successful career with Warner Brothers in the 40s.

Lorre was initially rather pleased by the opportunity these films offered him to play a hero for a change but he became increasingly frustrated by Fox’s refusal to increase his salary. Given the commercial success of the films he felt, quite reasonably, that he deserved a salary that reflected that success. He was also frustrated by Fox’s unwillingness to offer him the range of roles that he needed in order to establish himself as a genuine Hollywood  star.

The Mr Moto movies might seem to bear a superficial resemblance to the equally successful Charlie Chan and Mr Wong movies but in fact they were rather different. Mr Moto does play the sleuth at times but in reality he is a more of a secret agent than a detective. The films themselves fit more into the thriller genre than the mystery genre and unlike Charlie Chan and Mr Wong Mr Moto is a genuine action hero. He may look like a harmless and rather bookish Japanese gentleman but villains who make the mistake of taking him at face value often have cause to regret their error of judgment when the discover his rathe formidable skill at jiu-jitsu. There is also a touch of ruthlessness to Mr Moto that sets him apart from Charlie Chan and Mr Wong.

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Mr Moto is also a slightly ambiguous character. He is an agent of the Japanese government who seems to find himself working unofficially in the interests of the British and American governments but there is always a touch of ambivalence as to where his ultimate loyalties lie.

Mr Moto Takes a Chance emphasises the secret agent rôle of Mr Moto. The beginning of this film sees Moto working as an archaeologist in French Indochina, but the audience will have little doubt that this is merely a cover. When famed American aviatrix Victoria Mason (Rochelle Hudson) is forced to bale out of her stricken aircraft she finds herself in the tiny (mythical) kingdom of Tong Moi. The audience is well aware that her plane crash was no accident but was engineered by her although her purpose remains obscure. Mr Moto also does not know what she us up to but he certainly strongly suspects that her crash was no accident.

Victoria gets mixed up with two American newsreel cameramen, Marty (Robert Kent) and Chick (Chick Chandler), and they all become embroiled in a plot being hatched by the local high priest Bokor (George Regas). She also finds herself lined up to be the next wife of the  Rajah (J. Edward Bromberg). All three Americans are soon in trouble but Mr Moto has not been idle. He has been putting his famed skill at disguise to good use and manages to extricate Marty, Chick and Victoria from a number  of rather nasty situations.

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The presence of a senior secret agent like Mr Moto in Tong Moi is no accident either. His presence suggests that there is something far more significant and far more sinister going on in Tong Moi than a mere attempt to unseat a petty princeling.

Whoever is pulling the strings and for whatever purpose it is soon clear that they will not shrink from murder, or even from a series of murders. Poison darts are flying about thick and fast and Mr Moto will need all his skills just to stay alive, much less accomplish his mission. And as well as carrying out his mission he will have to rescue the three Americans. That’s not part of his mission but Mr Moto is too much of a gentleman to allow a lady’s life to be endangered or to allow two bungling but well-meaning newsreel cameramen to be wantonly murdered.

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There’s plenty of action (this is after all a spy thriller) and the story is an entertaining one handled with some skill by director Norman Foster. The sets are quite elaborate, being presumably (as was the so often the case with B-movies made by the major studios) left over from an earlier and bigger Fox production. The production values are quite high by B-movie standards and the action sequences are quite well done. This is a B-picture but it’s a fairly classy B-picture.

The curse of Hollywood B-movies of this era is the obligatory comic relief, provided in this case by Chick Chandler. He isn’t funny but fortunately he isn’t excessively irritating and the comic relief elements are kept within reasonable bounds and don’t really harm the movie. George Regas is an adequately menacing villain while J. Edward Bromberg has fun as bombastic but surprisingly shrewd and cunning Rajah. Robert Kent as Marty is bland but harmless. Rochelle Hudson makes an engaging and rather feisty heroine.

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Peter Lorre is in fine form. He is always charming but we are never allowed to forget than underneath his amiable exterior Mr Moto is not a man to be trifled with. It’s difficult to think of a more unlikely action hero than Lorre but he carries off the rôle with ease.

This movie is one of four in the first of the two Mr Moto DVD boxed sets issued by Fox. The transfer is superb and the movie looks terrific. Extras are not overly lavish but they do include a brief but fairly informative documentary on Peter Lorre’s life and career. Fans of the Mr Moto movies have no cause for complaint with Fox’s treatment of these movies.

This is my favourite B-movie series from that era. Mr Moto is a much more offbeat and interesting character than the general run of B-movie heroes and Lorre is of course a considerable more accomplished actor than the usual stars of such movies. Mr Moto Takes a Chance is splendid entertainment and is highly recommended.


Friday, December 20, 2013

Tough Assignment (1949)

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Lippert Pictures made some fairly entertaining crime B-movies in the late 40s and early 50s. They also made a few movies like Tough Assignment (1949) which really can only be described as utter dreck.

The idea has some promise - a newspaper reporter investigating cattle-rustling, which is at least an unexpected subject for a 1949 movie set in contemporary times.

Don Barry is reporter Dan Reilly, on his honeymoon with new wife Margie (Marjorie Steele). He’s taking some snapshots and accidentally gets a photograph of some hoodlums leaving a butcher’s ship after beating up the proprietor. Why on earth would a small neighbourhood butcher be a target for mobsters? The answer is black market beef and cattle rustling. Reilly has stumbled upon a story and he and Margie are determined to follow it through. The only problem is that the hoodlums know he’s on the story so he has to get the information he needs before the hoods get him.

Director William “One-Shot” Beaudine was famous for his ability to get the job done and get it done quickly and cheaply. The job he does here is technically competent but entirely lacking in any kind of inspiration or imagination. It’s strictly by the numbers.

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The real problem is Milton Luban’s screenplay. It’s obvious that Luban never met a cliché he didn’t like. Unfortunately that’s all we get. That’s bad enough but the story just makes no sense. How can you go undercover to get a story on a crime gang when the gang already knows who you are, what you look like, who you work for and what you’re up to? The script’s attempts to gloss over this difficulty only make the whole thing seem embarrassingly amateurish. Every plot point is painfully obvious. There is zero suspense and zero excitement.

Maybe that doesn’t matter since the movie is clearly aiming at being a light-hearted comedy-drama rather than straight drama, but in this case the comedy is not merely puerile and unfunny it’s also as excruciatingly obvious as the drama. You can pretty much predict exactly what each character is going to say next and what the next lame gag will be.

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The main source of comedy here is Sid Melton as crooked ranch hand Herman. Sid Melton may well be the least amusing and most irritating comic actor in history. OK, he certainly has some stiff competition in that field, but I’d still rank him very near the top. If you needed an actor who could be relied upon to extract absolutely zero humour from any situation then Sid Melton was your man.

Don Barry seems barely awake most of the time. The supporting cast is uniformly awful. The one bright spot is Marjorie Steele who manages to be cute and peppy and likeable in a rôle that could easily have been as irritating as everything else in this movie. Her performance is so bubbly that it effectively kills any chance the movie has of being an actual crime thriller but at least she’s moderately entertaining and actually knows how to deliver a comic line properly.

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This movie’s inclusion in VCI’s Forgotten Noir DVD set is puzzling to say the least since there is not the slightest hint of any noirness here. Absolutely none. The transfer is quite acceptable. The Forgotten Noir set itself is worth picking up since it’s ridiculously cheap and includes a couple of interesting movies.

It’s difficult to think of any movie that has quite so little to offer as Tough Assignment. It cannot even be described as a time-killer. You would get more entertainment from watching paint dry. Buy the set by all means but for pity’s sake avoid this particular movie.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Hatari! (1962)

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Hatari! is a lavish 1962 comedy adventure romp from Howard Hawks. The basic idea was, for 1962, rather clever. How do you get all the thrills and danger of big game hunting without having any animals killed? Simple. You make a movie about a group of men catching wild animals for zoos. It’s actually even more dangerous and exciting and it provides perfect family entertainment.

Hatari! is epic in scale with lots of location shooting and some very exciting action sequences. It was filmed in what is now Tanzania, and was naturally shot in widescreen and in Technicolor. If that wasn’t enough to attract audiences then for good measure it had John Wayne as its star. With those ingredients it couldn’t miss, and it didn’t, being a very major hit in 1962.

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The setup is a rather classic Hawksian one. You have a group of men more or less cut off from the outside world, facing danger and death. That was the classic Hawksian drama formula. Since this one is played mainly as comedy the danger and death elements are downplayed somewhat but the opening sequence, in which one member of the team is badly gored by a rhinoceros, serves to remind us that the dangers are very real. The element of danger is the crucial ingredient for the sorts of camaraderie and group dynamics that always fascinated Hawks.

Sean Mercer (John Wayne) leads the group. They are currently collecting animals, mostly for a zoo in Switzerland. The Swiss zoo has decided it would be a swell idea to send out a photographer to document the expedition. Only they neglected to mention that the photographer they were sending is young, attractive and very female. The arrival of Anna Maria D'Allesandro (soon to become known as Dallas, and played by Elsa Martinelli) is somewhat disconcerting to Sean Mercer. Not that he has anything against women, but he was badly hurt by a woman in the past and now he’s somewhat gun-shy where the opposite sex is concerned. He’s especially gun-shy where members of the opposite sex to whom he is attracted are concerned, and he’s certainly attracted to Dallas.

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Dallas is not the only woman Sean has to contend with. The animal-collecting outfit is actually owned by Brandy de la Court (Michèle Girardon). Her father had been a famous animal collector until he was killed trying to catch a rhino. His young daughter Brandy was more or less adopted by the survivors but now she’s not so young any more. Now she’s a very attractive young woman of eighteen and that’s going to cause more romantic complications, especially when a young Frenchman joins the team. He notices her charms at once, and that brings her charms to the notice of the team’s ace driver, Kurt Muller (Hardy Krüger). But this is not just a romantic triangle, it becomes a romantic quadrangle when yet a third member of the team decides he’s in love with Brandy.

Sean has his own problems. Like figuring out what to do about Dallas. He knows he’s in love with her but he has no idea how to tell her. Dallas meanwhile has been collecting baby elephants. Lots of baby elephants. They just keep turning up the camp and they all decide that she’s the ideal mother for a baby elephant. Sean also has to worry about the latest project of Pockets (Red Buttons). Pockets fancies himself as an inventor and he’s come up with a brilliant idea for catching monkeys. It’s the fact that his idea involves large amounts of gunpowder that has Sean worried.

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This is, at 157 minutes, a rather long movie. But it doesn’t really seem long at all. The animal-catching action sequences, involving high-speed chases in cars and trucks, are nicely interspersed with the more romantic and comedic scenes. The whole thing is quite well balanced. Some process shots are used in the action scenes but they’re very well done and it’s obvious that most of these scenes are pretty much done for real. They’re a good deal more exciting than most of the CGI-laden dreck that currently infests movie screens. Hawks knew how to do action. With spectacular scenery as a backdrop this movie scores highly on visual impressiveness.

Hawks’ ability to handle action, romance and comedy with equal dexterity stand him in good stead and despite the film’s length he is never in the slightest danger of losing control.

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The strong cast certainly helps. John Wayne’s easy-going likeable performance anchors the movie. Red Buttons could be an irritating actor but Hawks knows how to use his comic skills to best advantage and his performance works quite well. Hardy Krüger is equally likeable and is the ideal young gun to Wayne’s experienced old-timer. The only puzzling thing is that with the young and hunky Krüger around the two women seem determined to overlook his obvious charms and instead fall in love with the old-timers! Elsa Martinelli and Michèle Girardon are both delightful.

The barebones Region 4 DVD provides an anamorphic transfer but the picture is inclined to be a little soft and at times the colour balance seems just a little off.

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Hatari! is a remarkably good-natured movie that provides action, romance and comedy. It ends with an inspired extended comedic sequence that is almost pure screwball comedy, hardly surprising since nobody ever did screwball comedy better than Howard Hawks. This is family entertainment that actually will entertain the whole family. It’s impossible not to like this movie. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

This Side of the Law (1950)

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Warner Brothers have come up with a few interesting film noir items in their made-on-demand Archive series, and This Side of the Law certainly qualifies as interesting.

This 1950 Warner Brothers offering is perhaps more of a gothic thriller than a true film noir but it has enough noirish elements to be worthy of consideration by noir fans.

We start in true noir style with the hero in a great deal of trouble telling us how he got into the mess in a flashback that occupies most of the movie’s running time. David Cummins (Kent Smith) was a vagrant who got a lucky break. At least he thought it was a lucky break. Lawyer Philip Cagle (Robert Douglas) pays Cummins’ fine for vagrancy and offers him a job. All he has to do is be another man for a week.

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Cummins happens to be the splitting image of missing millionaire Malcolm Taylor. Taylor has been missing for seven years. In a few more weeks he will be declared legally dead. Cagle doesn’t want that to happen. Cummins will take his place.

Cummins turns up at Taylor’s palatial but very gothic mansion, Sans Souci. He manages to fool Taylor’s brother Calder and Calder’s wife Nadine. He even manages to fool Taylor’s wife Evelyn. So far so good, but Cummins soon discovers that Sans Souci is not a happy place. No-one seems to be pleased to have him back and no-one at the house seems to like anyone else there. Cummins starts to piece a few things together. Malcolm Taylor had been having an affair with Nadine. His relationship with his brother Calder had been uneasy to start but this affair had been the icing on the cake.

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Evelyn hadn’t known about Taylor’s affair with Nadine but she knew about his other affairs and the marriage had clearly been very shaky indeed. Now Evelyn finds out about Malcolm and Nadine and a tense situation gets a great deal tenser. While this is happening Calder is being slowly consumed by jealousy. And of course they all wanted Malcolm’s money.

What Cummins hasn’t figured out yet is why exactly Cagle wanted him to impersonate Taylor. Cagle claimed he was acting in Evelyn’s interest and his explanation sounded plausible enough. Cagle also wanted to find out exactly what had been going on at Sans Souci, and exactly why Malcolm Taylor disappeared. Cummins is starting to get an inkling of what the real situation is and it puts him in a difficult position.

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Cummins is your typical noir hero. He’s a decent enough guy and he really didn’t want to get involved in such a messy situation but he really needed the $5,000 Cagle offered him to impersonate Taylor. Now he’s in over his head and things are threatening to get out of control. He’s playing a perilous game with some very dangerous players.

Kent Smith had a very long career from the 1930s to the 1970s but never quite made it as a star. His leading roles were always in B-pictures. It’s difficult to understand why this was so. He had the looks and he had the talent. Perhaps the explanation is simply that he never got that breakthrough rôle that might have propelled him to stardom. In this movie he shows that he had what it takes to be a fine film noir lead. It’s a nicely understated performance.

Viveca Lindfors does well as Evelyn, but it’s Janis Paige who gets the juicy female rôle as the scheming femme fatale Nadine and she makes the most of it.

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Russell S. Hughes’ screenplay (from a story by Richard Sale) is pefectly serviceable. Director Richard L. Bare had a long if undistinguished career but he keeps the action moving along. There are no wasted scenes and Bare and cinematographer Carl E. Guthrie  capture the right atmosphere, a mix of film noir and gothic. The limited budget necessitated the use of matte paintings for some of the exterior shots of the cliff-top mansion but I always feel that the obvious use of matte paintings actually enhances a gothic feel, and that’s certainly the case here. Bare makes effective use of the classic gothic device of having key scenes played out on a treacherous cliff top. It’s an unoriginal idea but it works and it adds to the menacing gothic flavour.

The Warner Archive made-on-demand DVD offers a fine transfer although as usual in this series there are no extras.

This Side of the Law is an unassuming but thoroughly satisfying B-movie. Recommended.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Ceiling Zero (1936)

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My twin cinematic obsessions at the moment are aviation movies and Howard Hawks, which works out rather well since nobody did aviation movies better than Hawks. Ceiling Zero, made for Warner Brothers in 1936, seems to be regarded as one of the director’s lesser efforts. In fact it’s classic Hawks all the way and it’s a terrific movie.

Hawks’ first flying picture was The Dawn Patrol in 1930, a fine movie but it’s obvious that Hawks’ characteristic approach to film-making hadn’t yet quite coalesced. By the time he made Ceiling Zero six years later his mature style was fully formed and with such ideal subject matter he could hardly miss. And he doesn’t.

Federal Air Lines runs passenger, freight and air mail services out of Newark Airport. When it comes to passenger flights safety is the prime consideration but with the air mail it’s a different story. The mail flights take off regardless of weather conditions, even with zero visibility, the pilots flying on instruments and guided in to land by radio beacons.

Jake Lee (Pat O’Brien) runs the show. He has to answer to the airline’s owners but when it comes to day-to-day operations and hiring and firing of pilots he calls the shots. Nobody is very pleased when he hires his old First World War flying buddy Dizzy Davis (James Cagney). Dizzy had worked for the airline before and his reputation precedes him. It is a reputation for irresponsibility, selfishness, womanising, boozing and superb flying.

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On arrival Dizzy behaves exactly as his reputation would suggest. Trouble starts to brew when he sets his sights on beautiful 19-year-old Tommy Thomas (June Travis), who has just made her first solo flight. Tommy is clearly an ideal match for a Hawksian hero, a spirited woman who shares the hero’s love for adventure and can trade wisecracks with the best of them. The problem is that another pilot, Lawson, is already in love with her and wedding bells are already in the offing. That’s a minor problem as far as Dizzy Davis is concerned. He can outfly any other pilot and he can win any other man’s woman.

Dizzy’s pursuit of Tommy will have fateful consequences. In order to make a date with her he swaps flights with one of the airline’s most experienced pilots, Texas Clarke (Stuart Erwin). The weather closes in and Texas finds himself making the flight in almost impossible weather conditions - ceiling zero, visibility zero and impenetrable fog. Texas is a fine pilot and in normal circumstances could cope even with conditions such as these but when his radio gives out on him he’s in real trouble. Without a radio his only chance of landing is to find a gap in the cloud cover, an outside chance at best. Dizzy knows that it was his selfishness that put Texas in this jam. Everyone else knows it too but they also know that it’s the luck of the game.

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This movie divides neatly in half. The first half is zinging wise-cracking comedy in fine Hawksian fashion, a kind of dry run for His Girl Friday. Then, as it becomes obvious that Texas is in real trouble, the mood darkens and the movie switches to nail-biting tension. If the first half prefigures His Girl Friday then the second half clearly anticipates Hawks’ 1939 aviation masterpiece Only Angel Have Wings.

Hawks’ trademark rapid-fire overlapping dialogue is used to superb effect in both halves of the movie, providing sparkling comedy at first and then serving to ratchet up the tension as everyone’s nerves start to fray.

The classic Hawksian theme of men sharing danger and facing down death is very much in evidence. This theme was already in evidence in The Dawn Patrol but in Ceiling Zero it becomes even more Hawksian with the addition of strong very Hawksian female characters.

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The criticism usually directed at this movie is that it is very stagey (and it was in fact adapted from a stage play). That criticism betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the director’s approach to material like this. Hawks also liked to have his group of men facing danger of death cut off from the outside world. Having the action almost entirely taking place indoors, and almost entirely in a single room (apart from scenes of the flyers in the their cockpits where they are also cut off from the outside world), suits Hawks very well. It gives the movie the kind of claustrophobic isolated feel that he used so successfully in movies like Only Angel Have Wings and Rio Bravo (and The Dawn Patrol). This movie is very dialogue-heavy but the dialogue is always crucial in a Hawks film and in this movie it’s exceptionally important. Maybe a reliance on dialogue isn’t very cinematic in a purist sense but Hawks couldn’t have cared less. He wanted to make movies that worked and this one works very well indeed.

The acting certainly helps. This was one of James Cagney’s favourite movies and he’s in spectacular form. He’s in overdrive for the whole movie but that doesn’t prevent from revealing his character’s emotional depths. Cagney might be bouncing off the walls but he knows what he’s doing; he’s in complete control of his performance. Pat O’Brien provides the perfect foil. And as in any great Hawks movie the individual performances are important but more important still is the way the performances intermesh. In Ceiling Zero all the actors deliver on both counts.

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The supporting characters are as strong as the leads. Stuart Erwin is delightful. Even quite minor characters such as Texas’s wife Lou (Isabel Jewell) are strongly delineated and complex. June Travis makes a fine Hawksian woman, strong in herself but equally strong in her willingness to support her man.

One outstanding characteristic of the Hawks action movie is the lack of villains. Hawks had virtually no interest in villains. Even in The Dawn Patrol there are no villains - the Germans are as brave and honourable as the British flyers. There is even a strong bond between them since both are actually facing the same enemy, the enemy being death. It was entirely logical that Hawks’ next two aviation movies should have peacetime settings. The battle against death and danger has no need for human enemies at all.

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For an action movie Ceiling Zero has surprisingly little action. There is really only one major action set-piece, although it happens to be a very good one. The action itself is not all that important. The focus (as in The Dawn Patrol) is not on what happens in the air, it is on what happens to those on the ground waiting helplessly for the flyers to return. In spite of having relatively little action there is not a dull moment in the film, a point that some modern directors would be ell advised to take note of.

The only currently available edition of this movie is the French DVD release. The good news is that it is the original English-language version with removable French subtitles, and it’s a very good transfer.

Perhaps Ceiling Zero is not quite as good as Only Angel Have Wings, but it’s not that far behind. It’s absolutely essential viewing for admirers of Howard Hawks. It marks the arrival of the classic full-blown Howard Hawks style. The magnificent performance by James Cagney makes it a must-see movie. Very highly recommended.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Behind Office Doors (1931)

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RKO’s 1931 Behind Office Doors is typical of the pre-code era in a number of ways. Apart from having some racy content the whole approach is not quite what you’d expect. The wives-vs-secretaries story line was tailor-made for a breezy romantic comedy but rather than going for laughs the movie plays it all dead straight. The result is what could be described as a romantic office melodrama.

Mary Astor plays Mary Linden. Mary is the secretary to the boss of a large paper wholesaling company. She’s been carrying a torch for the firm’s top salesman, Jim Duneen (Robert Ames), for quite a while. Her problem is that Duneen likes cheap blondes and Mary is neither blonde nor cheap. When the elderly boss of the company has to retire for health reasons Mary sees her chance. She manoeuvres Jim Duneen into a position where he seems the obvious choice to take over the company. Duneen is too busy getting drunk and chasing the aforementioned cheap blondes to be much of a manager but that’s no problem. Mary has been the one actually running the company for years and when Jim gets the top job that’s what she goes on doing.

Mary’s plan of course was that having got Duneen to the top and then kept him there through her own managerial skills he would then realise what a marvel she was and fall in love with her. Needless to say it doesn’t happen. Jim even has the poor taste to bring his current mistress Daisy Presby (Edna Murphy) into the company as Mary’s assistant. When someone first coined the word bimbo it was clearly Daisy Presby he had in mind.

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Soon Mary has even bigger problems, when Duneen starts courting Ellen Robinson (Catherine Dale Owen), the daughter of the wealthy banker who bankrolls the company. Duneen isn’t in love with Ellen but it would obviously be a very advantageous marriage for him, putting him in the big league both financially and socially. And he has every intention of continuing to have his series of mistresses on the side.

Mary is meanwhile being pursued by Ronnie Wales (Ricardo Cortez). Mary likes Ronnie but she isn’t in love with him and in any case he’s married. Mary is far too obsessed by Jim Duneen to consider any other man. In fact Ronnie Wales is a fairly nice guy and he genuinely cares for her while Jim has no interest in her whatever. Mary is actually not only smarter but also more attractive than either Ellen Robinson or Jim’s current floozy but Jim just doesn’t notice smart attractive classy women as women.

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The major problem with this movie is that Carey Wilson’s screenplay just doesn’t have enough depth or complexity to sustain a serious treatment of such thin subject matter. The very uneven cast is a problem as well. Catherine Dale Owen is simply atrocious. Robert Ames is adequate but fails to put enough into his rôle to make Mary’s single-minded pursuit of him entirely convincing. Ricardo Cortez does his best but his part is so underwritten that he has few chances to shine. This is particularly unfortunate since the Ronnie Wales character really needed to be sufficiently developed to make him a serious rival to Duneen for Mary’s affections.

Mary Astor on the other hand is superb in a rôle that is far more demanding than it appears on the surface. She has to play Mary Linden as a woman who takes both life and love rather seriously but at the same time avoid making her a blue-stocking. She has to make Mary sexy, since the whole point of the movie is that Jim Duneen has a woman right under his nose the whole time who is not only more classy than his usual floozies but is also a beautiful and woman whose interest in him is clearly sexual as well as emotional. But Astor has to do this very subtly since Mary is a woman who just doesn’t do such things in an obvious way. Astor also has to ensure that the audience never comes to despise her character in spite of her excessively self-sacrificing behaviour. Astor does everything required of her and does it extremely well.

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Pre-code movies also tend to be visually less than impressive. The studios were under severe financial pressure at the time and were looking to turn out movies like this one as quickly and cheaply as possible. There’s certainly nothing in the visuals of this movie to get excited about.

Behind Office Doors does however have plenty of the kind of racy content that pre-code fans enjoy. The sexual nature of situations is extremely blatant and while we’re clearly expected to approve of Mary’s determination to settle for nothing short of marriage we’re also clearly not expected to be shocked by men who maintain mistresses in a very open and public manner.

Hollywood’s pre-code movies are a strange and confusing experience for some viewers today. They express an attitude towards sex that seems at times very modern, but isn’t really. For some modern audiences this is frustrating - they see pre-code movies as somehow hypocritical or moralistic, or even timid. It’s as if Hollywood at that time was flirting with ideas of sexual liberation but (in most cases) was too afraid to go all the way. The secret is to remember that these movies are of their time. When we watch movies from the past it’s as if we were visiting another culture, one that can sometimes seem superficially very much like our own age but we always need to remember that it isn’t. The sexual and social mores of the early 1930s were very different from our own. The movies of the pre-code era might have questioned some traditional ideas about marriage but the reality is that very few people in the 30s were prepared to ditch marriage altogether, and while there may have been a more casual acceptance of things like pre-marital sex and infidelity than in previous ages the reality again was that most people were not prepared to jettison traditional views on such subjects altogether.

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If we want to enjoy the movies of other eras such as this, and even more importantly if we want to understand these movies and understand the motivations of the characters, we need to maintain a respect for the values of the era. Judging Mary Linden’s actions by today’s standards just isn’t going to work. When Mary looks at the price tag on her lingerie and realises that effectively she’s selling herself for less than the going price for a floozy like Daisy she might not react the way a woman in 2013 would react but she does react the way a woman such as her would react in 1931 and the device makes its point rather neatly and economically.

Roan’s DVD release looks quite reasonable for a public domain movie. Behind Office Doors has some serious flaws but Mary Astor’s performance is good enough to carry the movie. Worth a rental for pre-code fans and worth a purchase if you’re a fan of this rather underrated star.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Ministry of Fear (1944)

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Ministry of Fear, released by Paramount in 1944, is not one of Fritz Lang’s more admired American movies. Lang himself was not entirely happy with it. In spite of all that I’m going to go out on a limb and describe it as a minor Langian masterpiece.

Lang admired Graham Greene as a writer and was initially enthusiastic when approached by Paramount to film Greene’s 1943 novel Ministry of Fear. Lang was usually very careful to make sure that any contract he signed would give him the right to make any alterations to the script that he considered necessary. On this occasion he neglected to take that precaution and then found screenwriter Seton I. Miller to be annoyingly resistant to making the changes that Lang sought. That may account for Lang’s later lack of enthusiasm for the movie, and possibly also for the relative disdain critics have displayed towards it. Regardless of all this it’s obvious when you watch the movie that Lang put a great deal of thought into the making of the movie. It includes some of Lang’s most effective visual set-pieces.

As the film opens Stephen Neale (Ray Milland) is about to be released from what we assume to be a prison. As he passes through the gate on his way out we find that it is in fact a mental hospital. At this stage we have no idea why he had been confined in such a place and we will not be given that information until well into the movie.

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While waiting for his train to London Neale wanders into a fête run by a wartime charity, the Mothers of Free Nations. He has his fortune told and wins a cake. His winning of the cake seems to cause a surprising amount of consternation among the other attendees of the fête. This strikes Neale as slightly curious but he is too anxious to get to London to worry about such trifles. He boards his train and this is the occasion for the first of Lang’s virtuoso moments in this film. A blind man enters Neale’s compartment and now Neale discovers that the cake he has won is a great deal more than just a cake.

That cake lets Stephen Neale in for a good deal of trouble. He soon starts to suspect that the Mothers of Free Nations might not be quite the innocuous charity it appears to be. When he meets the people who run the charity, Willi Hilfe (Carl Esmond) and his sister Clara (Marjorie Reynolds), his suspicions are somewhat abated. They are Austrian refugees and seem to be harmless enough. In fact Neale is rather taken by Clara.

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Nonetheless Neale is determined to find out why a cake has caused him so much trouble and has almost cost him his life. He wants to track down the clairvoyant from the carnival and this quest leads to a séance, and the séance scene is handled brilliantly by Lang. It also introduces Dan Duryea as Cost, a character who will play some unexpected parts in the story.

Associated with the Mothers of Free Nations is a psychiatrist named Dr Forrester (Alan Napier). He has written a book offering a psychoanalytical examination of Nazism. Neale is rather puzzled by Dr Forrester and he is increasingly concerned about being shadowed by a rather sinister unidentified figure.

Neale is very unsure about trusting anyone concerned in these doings and the other characters are equally unsure about trusting him. Neale seems to have good reasons for not trusting them but then they seem to have equally valid reasons for not trusting him.

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The audience has seen all these events from Neale’s point of view and knows no more about what is really going on than he does. On the other hand the audience has very incomplete knowledge of Stephen Neale himself and when snippets of information about him are revealed they may be inclined to be as suspicious of him as he is of the other characters in the story, especially when the reasons for his incarceration in the asylum are revealed.

The one thing that seems to be beyond doubt is that espionage is involved, but in this movie nothing is really beyond doubt. Everything and everybody seems equivocal (hardly surprising when the source material is a Graham Greene novel). It’s all shades of grey. Anyone could be guilty but we can’t be sure exactly what they might be guilty of.

The resolution of these various doubts will afford Lang the opportunity for a series of stunning visual tours de force.

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Whatever reservations Lang may have had about Miller’s screenplay it does capture much of the distinctive Graham Greene flavour of the novel, although Lang’s handling of the material possibly contributes even more to the very effectively ambiguous feel of the movie.

Ray Milland is ideally cast. He had the ability to be very likeable whilst also leaving us in some small doubt about whether the characters he played were really what they seemed to be. Marjorie Reynolds is an effective female lead. Dan Duryea has little screen time but as always makes his presence felt playing a decidedly but subtly sinister rôle. The supporting is uniformly impressive.

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The amount of time and effort Lang was able to put into his visual set-pieces makes it obvious that Paramount had provided him with a rather generous budget. The movie has  the definite feel of being a movie shot entirely in the studio and on the backlot but that was true of most of Lang’s best movies of the 40s (a feature that is particularly evident in Scarlet Street and Woman in the Window). I feel this was very much to the advantage of his movies of this period, giving them a wonderfully stifling claustrophobic feel but even more importantly giving them a deliberately artificial feel that adds extra layers of ambiguity.

Optimum’s Region 2 DVD offers no extras but a superb transfer.

Ministry of Fear is often dismissed as a lightweight Lang movie but it is nonetheless very Langian and is also one the most visually impressive of his American movies. There are enough layers of complexity and ambiguity to satisfy any reasonable Lang fan. And it’s also an extremely entertaining movie. Very highly recommended.

Friday, November 29, 2013

The Dawn Patrol (1930)

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The original 1930 version of The Dawn Patrol is one of those movies that has been almost completely overshadowed by its remake. The 1938 version (with the same title) starring Errol Flynn will be familiar to most classic movie fans while the 1930 version has been lost in obscurity. This is a great pity since the original is not only a Howard Hawks film, it’s also a fascinating glimpse of Hawks the film-maker at a stage in his career when he had not quite perfected his mature style but he was getting pretty close to it. The themes that would obsess Hawks are already apparent, and we can see in embryo the ways in which he would tackle those themes again and again.

It is late 1915 the 59th Squadron of the Royal Flying Corps has been taking a pounding. Their commander, Major Brand (Neil Hamilton), finds himself having to send inexperienced  young pilots straight into the thick of the fighting and inevitably many do not survive even their first mission. The stress is made worse for Major Brand since he himself, as the commanding officer, cannot fly combat missions. As a result he feels like an executioner sending men to their deaths.

Major Brand clashes repeatedly with his subordinate Captain Courtney (Richard Barthelmess). Supposedly there has been bad blood between them since an incident involving a woman in Paris, but as the kindly old squadron adjutant points out to one of the pilots the reality is that they are very close friends. They simply find it easier to deal with a difficult situation by blowing off steam at each other. This is a theme that will be echoed later in the movie, one of the many example’s of the movie’s interesting cyclical structure.

The squadron’s two veteran pilots are Captain Courtney and Lieutenant Scott (Douglas Fairbanks Jr). Their job is to keep the green pilots alive while also carrying out their missions.

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The war progresses and Major Brand is promoted to a headquarters job. Captain Courtney, who has always been derisive of desk-bound officers who send men into combat, now finds himself playing exactly that role.

The cyclical structure is the key to the movie. Crucial scenes are played out in exactly the same way on three separate occasions, each time with different characters, and each time with even greater emotional impact. A simplistic interpretation would be that this is a commentary on the futility of war but that would be quite uncharacteristic of Hawks, and in any case the film itself makes it fairly clear that this is not the intention. In fact the intention is to emphasise that danger and death are always the enemies and they are always with us. The movie is very sympathetic to the Germans who are portrayed as honourable and heroic foes and this is another indication that the enemy is not the soldier on the opposing side, the enemy is death itself. In one scene a captured German flyer is brought in. He is immediately asked if he would like a drink and he is soon carousing merrily with the British flyers. He is not an enemy; he is a comrade since he faces the same dangers the British pilots face and he faces those dangers with the same courage and cheerfulness.

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Hawks was always fascinated by the behaviour of men confronted with the imminent danger of violent death. He was fascinated not just by the way men dealt with this situation, but the ways in which groups of men dealt with it. This early Hawks movie offers us the kind of setup he would use again and again. As in his later masterpiece Only Angel Have Wings the men of the 59th Squadron in The Dawn Patrol seem strangely isolated. We never see the superior officers who issue the orders to the squadron’s commander. We get only brief glimpses of events elsewhere. Virtually the entire movie takes place in the squadron’s commander’s office, the squadron’s recreation room, and in the air. By effectively cutting this group of men off from the outside world Hawks is able to focus on the men themselves and the way to relate to each other.

The men of the 59th Squadron have learnt, in classic Hawksian style, that the only way to face death is to laugh in his face. It might be sheer bravado but it works.

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This movie suffers from many of the typical weaknesses of very early talkies. It’s slightly clunky in places and the supporting players in particular overact in silent movie style. This was also one of Hawks’ first talkies and his comparative inexperience shows at times. This gives the movie a rather ragged and raw feel that actually works in its favour. Hawks would later learn to tackle similar themes in a more polished manner but what matters is that the emotional impact is there.

The flying scenes were good enough to be re-used in the 1938 remake. The Hawks signature is apparent here as well. What matters to Hawks is not the action but the way men react to it and on several occasions Hawks simply shows the aircraft of “A” Flight taking off then cuts immediately to the squadron commander waiting anxiously at his desk for the sound of the returning aircraft. We don’t need to see the fighting; it is the emotional cost that matters. When the aerial fighting scenes are shown they are spectacular enough however and they stand up very well indeed today.

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Richard Barthelmess gives a brooding low-key performance that captures the spirit of the dogged and indomitable Hawksian hero perfectly. Douglas Fairbanks Jr is somewhat histrionic but he gets way with it. We accept that a man in his position might well find that being slightly histrionic is the best way to deal with his situation.

The print used on the Warner Archive made-on-demand DVD release is far from perfect but its flaws are nowhere near serious enough to detract from the enjoyment of the movie.

Without taking anything away from the 1938 remake this 1930 Hawks’ version ofThe Dawn Patrol has more emotional punch and is overall the better movie. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Nightfall (1957)

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Nightfall was released by Columbia in 1957, a time when many authoritative books on film noir tell us that film noir was virtually dead. It has to be admitted that many of the late 50s movies included in film noir boxed sets are at best marginally noir. It therefore comes as a pleasant surprise that Nightfall is both genuine noir and also an extremely good movie.

This movie was directed by Jacques Tourneur, written by Stirling Silliphant and based on a novel by David Goodis so maybe we shouldn’t really be surprised by its quality. Tourneur after all did direct possibly the greatest noir of them all, Out of the Past. Goodis was one of the best of the American hardboiled writing school, while Silliphant would go on to write The Lineup in 1958, another somewhat neglected but superb noir.

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Nightfall starts off in classic noir territory. It’s night time in LA and insurance investigator Ben Fraser (James Gregory) is shadowing a man named Vanning (Aldo Ray). Fraser’s job is to recover $350,000 stolen from a bank in Wyoming. He knows Vanning was involved in some way but he can’t help having a nagging doubt about Vanning’s actual guilt. He’s been shadowing Vanning so closely that he feels like he really knows the man, and it is after all his job to recognise the signs of guilt in those suspected of crime. Somehow Vanning doesn’t quite fit. He’s obviously on the run and obviously scared but he doesn’t seem scared the way a guilty man would be scared.

Vanning has much the same effect on model Marie Gardner (Anne Bancroft) when he picks her up in a bar. Being a model Marie has heard just about every phony line in the book from men but Vanning really does seem to be a pretty decent guy. When he tells her his story, even though the story might seem far-fetched to most people, she’s inclined to believe him. Pretty soon she finds she has little choice - she will have to trust him if she wants to stay alive.

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Vanning’s story is told in a series of flashbacks. He was on a hunting trip in Wyoming with a doctor friend when they had a very unlucky encounter with a couple of very nasty bank robbers. It was the kind of encounter that could plunge a very ordinary law-abiding citizen straight into the worst kind of noir nightmare world, a world of casual violence and murder.

The nightmare is far from over. By a series of mischances the two bank robbers no longer have the money they stole from the bank, and they’re pretty sure Vanning either has the money or knows where it is. In a memorable and very noir night scene by a deserted oil derrick they try to convince Vanning to tell them where the money is. Their methods are convincing to say the least but things don’t turn out quite the way they planned.

From the very noir world of LA at night the scene switches to the magnificent natural beauties of Wyoming, but Tourneur has no trouble maintaining the atmosphere of fear and menace.

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Aldo Ray is perfect as Vanning. He is a man with something to hide, something dangerous, something that haunts him, but at the same time Ray makes us feel that Vanning really is a very nice guy who doesn’t deserve his fate.

James Gregory was a reliable character actor and handles his role with ease. Ben Fraser is a man who doesn’t give up but he isn’t interested merely in getting a result. It has to be the right result. He’s a sympathetic character but a strong one as well.

The two bank robbers are Red (Rudy Bond) and John (Brian Keith) and they’re as dangerous a pair as you’re ever likely to come cross. Red is crazy, and it’s a bad craziness. Red likes hurting people and he likes killing people even more. John isn’t crazy and he doesn’t enjoy violence but he accepts violence as part of the package when you’re on the wrong side of the law. He won’t enjoy it but John will kill you with sublime indifference if he feels he has to. Either of these men on their own would be dangerous enough but together they’re a time-bomb waiting to go off. They would kill each other without a second’s hesitation and they will certainly kill anyone who gets in their way.

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Red is your basic movie psycho, but Rudy Bond makes him memorable. Brian Keith gives one of his best-ever performances as John. There’s a touch of black humour in his performance but at the same time we’re never allowed to forget that he’s a cold-blooded killer, which makes the black humour quite disturbing. Which is of course the intention of both the actor and the director.

If there’s a weakness in the film it’s perhaps that Anne Bancroft’s character doesn’t have the necessary depth to make her a truly interesting film noir female lead. Bancroft does nothing wrong but she isn’t given quite enough to work with.

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You expect some good visual set-pieces from Tourneur, and you get them. The oil derrick scene mentioned earlier and the later snow-plough scene are executed with the director’s usual skill. Burnett Guffey’s black-and-white cinematography is of the quality you’d expect from a cinematographer of his high reputation. The sudden switch from LA to Wyoming works well, nicely emphasising the lead character’s position, caught between the worlds of light and darkness.

This movie is part of the Columbia Film Noir Classics II boxed set. The lack of extras for this particular movie is disappointing but the 16x9 enhanced transfer is excellent.

Compared to his best work, to movies like Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie and Out of the Past, Nightfall is perhaps lesser Tourneur but it’s still a superbly crafted and very entertaining film noir. Recommended.