Monday, December 28, 2015

Christmas Holiday (1944)

Christmas Holiday is a pretty strange title for a film noir. Even stranger, this is a film noir starring Gene Kelly and Deanna Durbin. On the other hand it is directed by Robert Siodmak, one of the grand masters of noir, and it is based on a short story by W. Somerset Maugham. It’s odd that more of Maugham’s stories weren’t given the film noir treatment - he was an author with the right sort of sensibility for film noir.

Maugham’s story has been Americanised but setting it in New Orleans gives it the kind of overheated slightly sinful tropical tone that is found in so much of Maugham’s work.

The film has the classic noir structure with most of the story being told through flashbacks. A young artillery officer, Lieutenant Charles Mason (Dean Harens), is heading to San Francisco on leave to marry his sweetheart. Just as he’s about to leave the catch the plane he gets a Dear John letter. He’s determined not to take this lying down and sets off for San Francisco anyway. The aircraft runs into bad weather and is diverted to New Orleans. The dirty weather has set in for quite a while. He ends up in a bar where he meets hardbitten night-club singer Jackie Lamont (Deanna Durbin). It is Christmas Eve and she asks him to take her to Midnight Mass. Afterwards she tells him her story, taking us into the first flashback.

Jackie used to be Abigail Martin and she was married to Robert Manette (Gene Kelly). Manette is the weak, self-indulgent spoilt offspring of one of the leading families in New Orleans. He’s a charming but decidedly shady character and Abigail gets her first glimpse into the noir abyss when he comes home late at night with a great deal of money and bloodstains on his clothing.

Robert and Abigail live with Robert’s mother. Mrs Manette (Gale Sondergaard) has all the strength that Robert lacks but it doesn’t do either of them much good since her strength expresses itself in over-protectiveness which simply encourages Robert’s self-indulgence and weakness of character. The relationship between mother and son is clearly not a healthy one. The second flashback tells us how Robert and Abigail met, and we get a bit more insight into that unhealthy mother-son relationship.

Abigail is just too innocent to see the obvious warning signs. Robert is a gambler with no self-control, selfish and immature but of course he promises her he’s going to give up gambling and she believes him. Sooner or later Robert is going to get himself into big trouble. Abigail isn’t strong enough or worldly enough to stop him and while his mother is aware of his character flaws he remains her blue-eyed boy and she has clearly made the mistake of rescuing him whenever he gets into trouble. He’s never had to deal with consequences and he’s never learnt responsibility. This is not going to end well but Abigail is going to go on loving him.

This is a role-reversal film noir with Gene Kelly as the pretty boy homme fatale who leads good girl Deanna Durbin into the noir nightmare world. Gene Kelly does a decent job. He’s charming enough to convince us that he could have persuaded the naïve Abigail to fall in love with him and he’s creepy enough to make us wish that she hadn’t fallen for him.

Deanna Durbin’s lightweight musicals were among Universal’s most reliable money spinners. She was obviously anxious to try her hand at some serious acting and she succeeds pretty well. It’s a challenging role since she has to play the same character at two different stages of her life - as the innocent kid from Vermont who fell for Robert Manette, and as the hardbitten night-club chanteuse that she is now. Wisely she doesn’t try to make Jackie too hardboiled - Durbin was no Joan Bennett but that’s OK because Jackie isn’t all that hardboiled - the sweet kid from Vermont is still there under the cynical shell that she tries to project. And naturally she gets to sing a couple of songs.

Siodmak displays his usual sure touch. This is a movie that switches between typical noir scenes (with seedy night-clubs and rainy night shooting) and bright cheerful sunlit scenes as we move between the present and Jackie’s chequered past. Woody Bredell’s cinematography is impressive (not surprising considering that he shot the classic noirs Phantom Lady and The Killers for Siodmak).

The script is perhaps just a little too predictable. Fortunately the movie has other compensating strengths - the interesting three-way dynamic between Abigail, Robert and his mother, some good atmosphere, a generally handsome look and fairly effective performances.

Special mention must be made of the contribution of the art directors, Robert Clatworthy and John B. Goodman. There are some wonderful multi-level partly indoor and partly outdoor sets that capture the New Orleans atmosphere very neatly.

The Region 2 DVD from Simply Media offers a reasonably satisfactory transfer although the sound quality is a little uneven at times.

Christmas Holiday is not one of Siodmak’s best efforts but it’s a worthwhile second-tier noir  made more interesting by the unusual casting. Recommended.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Merry Christmas to everyone

Merry Christmas to everyone. I hope you get lots of classic movie-related presents.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Sherlock Holmes: The House of Fear (1945)

The House of Fear (or Sherlock Holmes: The House of Fear as it is sometimes known) was the tenth of the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes movies (and the eighth to be made by Universal). It’s based (very loosely indeed) on Conan Doyle’s story The Five Orange Pips. It was made in 1944 and released the following year.

It seems that someone may be murdering the members of the Good Comrades Club. This is a club of well-to-do and moderately distinguished retired bachelors. Two of the seven members received envelopes containing orange pips. The first envelope contained seven pips; the second contained six. Soon afterwards both men were killed, apparently in accidents. Sherlock Holmes is not so sure these gentlemen really met their deaths accidentally. He is particularly interested in the case when he learns that one of the club members is Dr Simon Merrivale, who a few years earlier had been acquitted of murder. Also of interest is that the members of the club are heavily insured, with the beneficiaries being the surviving members. Holmes and Watson set off for the house, on the wild west coast of Scotland,  in which the Good Comrades share their comfortable bachelor existence.

Holmes and Watson may have arrived just in time - another member of the club has received a fatal envelope, this time containing five orange pips. They are however unable to prevent several more murders. It is Dr Watson who will discover the vital clue. He might not understand its full significance but he certainly realises its importance, and almost pays for his discovery with his life.

Roy Chanslor’s screenplay has very little to do with Conan Doyle’s story but it is thoroughly diverting, with secret passageways, a suggestion of a haunted house and a family curse. There’s also a definite affinity to Old Dark House movies and even a slight similarity to Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None.

Rathbone and Bruce are both in fine form. Dennis Hoey as Inspector Lestrade shares the comic relief duties with Nigel Bruce but fortunately the comic elements are not overdone. There is plenty of amusement but the focus is on the mystery, and on the gothic possibilities of a large old house in an isolated setting.

The gothic sensibility is very strong indeed in this movie. Gothic atmosphere was something that Universal could be relied on to do supremely well in those days and director Roy William Neill pulls out all the stops. We get plenty of slightly unusual camera setups and a smattering of Dutch angles. Given that the story itself is rather gothic in tone these techniques do not come across as cheap gimmickry - they genuinely do enhance the atmosphere. This really is a very stylish movie by B-movie standards.

As is the case with the rest of the Rathbone/Bruce movies production values are high. The house and the remote location are used skillfully. This might be a B-movie but it’s a classy and very professionally made B-movie.

By this time Universal had (very wisely) decided to abandon the idea of bringing Holmes up-to-date and having him involved in World War 2 espionage plots. The time period in which The House of Fear is set is left deliberately vague. Apart from a brief appearance of a motor car it could be the 1890s, but it could still very well be the 1920s or even late Edwardian times. While the Universal Holmes movies dealing with World War 2 have their virtues the Great Detective really never seemed quite at home in the 1940s. The House of Fear feels more like a real Sherlock Holmes adventure.

The DVD transfer (in Optimum’s Region 2 Sherlock Holmes Definitive Collection boxed set) is extremely good indeed. There are a few extras as well, including fairly informative production notes courtesy of Richard Valley.

The House of Fear is by no means the best of the Universal Sherlock Holmes movies but it’s an above-average entry in the cycle and it provides wonderful entertainment. Highly recommended.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Circle of Danger (1951)

Circle of Danger is a low-key British mystery thriller about a man trying to learn the truth about his brother’s death.

Clay Douglas (Ray Milland) is a diver who has made a lot of money in the salvage business. Now he’s sold his share of the business and he sets off for Britain to find out what really happened to his brother. His brother had joined the British Army in 1940 and had ended up in the Commandos. He had been killed during an operation behind enemy lines in 1944. During the war Clay, who was then serving in the US Navy, had had a chance encounter with a man named Smithers who had served alongside his brother. Smithers had told Clay something very disturbing - the bullet that killed his brother may not have been a German bullet. His brother may have been murdered.

Clay’s quest to discover the truth takes him from London to a mining town in Wales and from thence to the Highlands of Scotland. Smithers is now dead and in fact most of the men in Clay’s brother’s Commando unit are now dead as well. Finding the few survivors proves to be a frustrating business.

He eventually tracks down his brother’s commanding officer in the Scottish Highlands. Like everyone else he has managed to contact Major McArran (Hugh Sinclair) seems to be curiously reluctant to discuss the matter.

At McArran’s house Clay meets Elspeth Graham (Patricia Roc), a young writer of children’s books. There’s an obvious attraction between them but it’s a romance that runs into an extraordinary number of obstacles, not the least of them being that Major McArran is clearly very interested in Elspeth as well. Clay is certainly keen on Elspeth but his obsession with uncovering the truth about his brother’s death proves to be another obstacle in the path of true love.

Philip Macdonald wrote the screenplay, based on his novel White Heather. The story relies more on suspense and the unravelling of a murder mystery than on conventional thriller elements. It’s very light on action but it is definitely nicely suspenseful. There’s some clever misdirection and some good plot twists as Clay follows up clues that don’t mean what he thinks they mean and don’t lead where he thinks they’re going to lead. The ending is unexpected and at the same time it seems like the only possible ending, which is always  the mark of a well-constructed story.

The love story has no real connection with the main plot but it does serve to lighten the mood and it slows down the plot. This is actually an advantage. This is a slow-burning suspense film and the pacing is deliberately somewhat leisurely.

Jacques Tourneur directed the film and while it’s a lesser effort from a man who is one of the most underrated American directors of his era it’s still a very fine and very well-crafted movie with some very effective use of locations.

Clay Douglas is a man who is dogged in pursuit of anything he decides to go after but Ray Milland plays him as a sympathetic character albeit with just the slightest touch of disturbing obsessiveness. Patricia Roc makes an engaging leading lady. Hugh Sinclair is solid as McArran and the supporting performances are all effective. Marius Goring pretty much steals the picture as Sholto Lewis, a ballet dancer who gives the impression of being the last person you would expect to be a very tough ex-Commando officer but appearances can be deceptive. 

Network’s DVD is typical of the company - it offers virtually nothing in the way of extras but it offers an extremely good transfer at a very reasonable price.

Circle of Danger is a subtle movie that offers few thrills but does offer effective suspense and a good mystery story. It’s a well-made well-acted film that achieves what it sets out to achieve. The location shooting and Marius Goring’s performance are major bonuses. The result is excellent entertainment. Not quite in the same league as Tourneur’s best films but still highly recommended.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Guilt Is My Shadow (1950)

Guilt Is My Shadow is a low-key 1950 crime drama from Associated British Pictures.

The movie opens dramatically enough with a bank robbery gone wrong. The getaway driver is the only member of the gang to escape. The driver is a young man named Jamie (Peter Reynolds) and deciding that it would be advisable to make himself scarce for a while he hides out on his uncle’s farm.

Jamie’s uncle is Kit (Patrick Holt) and he’s a bit of a recluse. The farm is fairly isolated and that’s how he likes it. Kit is not overly enthusiastic about having his nephew staying with him but family is family and there’s not much he can do. Kit is also a little suspicious of his nephew, which suggests (although it isn’t actually stated) that Jamie has perhaps been a somewhat wild young man.

Jamie is not exactly cut out for the rural life. He makes no secret of his contempt for the farm, for the inhabitants of the nearby village and for everything associated with life in the countryside. He has a certain facile charm but it is soon apparent that he is a practised liar and a thief, and in general is totally selfish and amoral. Her and Kit do not hit it off but free board and lodging is free board and lodging and Jamie seems inclined to stay.

He gets himself a job in the local garage where he unashamedly cheats the customers.

All is going well for Jamie until his wife Linda (Elizabeth Sellars) suddenly arrives. It’s obvious that the marriage is not a successful one and it’s equally obvious that Jamie is not pleased by Linda’s arrival. He doesn’t let her presence cramp his style though and he is soon in pursuit of Betty (Lana Morris). Betty is the sort of girl who likes charming bad boys.

To complicate things it’s clear that Kit is growing very fond indeed of Linda and it’s also clear that she reciprocates his feelings.

Of course this tense situation becomes a powder keg waiting to explode and eventually it does explode, with fatal consequences for one of the parties involved.

It seems that this unfortunate outcome might never come to light but while you may be able to conceal guilt from the police you cannot conceal it from yourself. Sooner or later you discover that guilt really is your shadow.

The opening sequence might lead you to expect a gritty urban crime thriller but what you get is more of a rural psychological melodrama.

This is a fairly well acted film. The standout performance comes from Elizabeth Sellars as Linda but both Patrick Holt and Peter Reynolds are very good. Linda is a pleasant young woman who is clearly wounded by her husband’s indifference to her. Jamie is clearly a wrong ’un from the start but Reynolds doesn’t overdo it. He plays Jamie as a thoughtless self-centred  personality who has never wasted a single moment considering anyone else’s feelings or interests. He’s not evil; he’s simply indifferent to other human beings.

Director Roy Kellino had an undistinguished career in movies before moving into television but he does a capable job here. He has a good eye for composition and he shows some imagination without being in the least gimmicky. The screenplay, by Kellino, Ivan Foxwell and John Gilling (whom I’ve written about quite a lot recently), is solid if somewhat less than startlingly original. It was based on a novel by Norah Lofts.

The location shooting (in Devon) is impressive and quite atmospheric and a pleasant surprise in a low-budget 1950s British movie. The dream sequences are a good example of what you achieve with very little money if you know what you’re doing. They’re effective and subtle.

This is as I said earlier a low-key crime film. In fact many modern viewers might find it to be a bit too low-key. There is suspense but it never really builds to nail-biting levels. The pacing for the first half of the movie is quite leisurely. It’s a story that probably could have been done quite successfully as a one-hour television drama. At 86 minutes it’s definitely just a touch overlong.

Network’s Region 2 DVD offers an excellent transfer.

Guilt Is My Shadow is an understated little movie that works quite well. Recommended.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Buccaneer’s Girl (1950)

Buccaneer’s Girl is a bright and breezy comedy romance pirate romp from Universal with Yvonne de Carlo as a lady pirate (well, sort of a lady pirate). It's very much a B-picture and it could have used just a little more action but de Carlo is in sparkling form and there's plenty of enjoyment to be had here.

Here's the link to my full review at my Cult Movie reviews blog.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Flame of New Orleans (1941)

The Flame of New Orleans is a stylish romantic comedy set in early 19th century New Orleans with Marlene Dietrich as an adventuress torn between money and love.

Claire Ledeux (Marlene Dietrich) is a phony countess out to snare herself a rich man. She puts on a good front. She has a nice house and beautiful clothes but she no actual money. Finding a rich husband is not just something to be desired - it’s a necessity. With her beauty and her glamour that should not be a difficult task and she has set her sights on wealthy middle-aged banker Charles Giraud (Roland Young). Success seems to be at hand, in fact he has already proposed, when fate steps in. She meets handsome sea captain Robert LaTour (Bruce Cabot). He would be a most unsuitable husband. He’s certainly not penniless but he’s a long long way from being rich. Most unsuitable indeed. On the other hand he is handsome and carefree and charming. What is a girl to do?

Claire has no doubts as to what she should do. She should marry her rich banker. There is however one major obstacle. Claire has had a colourful past and it has caught up to her. She has been recognised by an old flame who knew her in St Petersburg and the fellow has, most unfortunately, revealed Claire’s past to sundry acquaintances and word has got back to Giraud. Not only is Giraud understandably shocked. There is also the problem of his very respectable family. The woman he marries has to be of irreproachable character.

This is a tricky problem but Claire thinks she has the answer. If Giraud can be convinced that the adventuress with the shady past from St Petersburg was not Claire but her wicked cousin then all should be well. The fact that she has no wicked cousin is a minor obstacle. She will simply invent one. An identical cousin.

Of course it doesn’t work out as smoothly as she had hoped and that disturbingly attractive sea captain seems to keep turning up.

The plot is little more than a succession of very old clichés. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that it’s executed with style, charm and wit.

René Clair made only a handful of movies in Hollywood but they included several gems, most notably And Then There Were None and the delightful supernatural comedy I Married a Witch. The lightness of touch he demonstrated in the latter film  is very much in evidence in The Flame of New Orleans. The screenplay provides the players enough to work with and they make the most of it.

Dietrich could play evil scheming spider women or tough cynical women but in this case she gets to play a scheming woman who might be somewhat amoral but is also charming and likeable and generally pretty sympathetic. She’s in superb form, and she’s breathtakingly glamorous as always. And naturally she gets to wear some stunning clothes.

Bruce Cabot and Roland Young are absolutely splendid as her rival suitors. Young plays Giraud as a somewhat ridiculous and pompous figure but one can’t help rather liking him. It’s the sort of part he relished and he’s terrific. Cabot is a handsome dashing leading man with a twinkle in his eye. Theresa Harris plays Claire’s black maid Clementine with style and panache. Mischa Auer provides additional fun as the cowardly but effervescent crazy Russian Zolotov. It’s a fine cast and they’re all at the top of their game.

This was a fairly ambitious and lavish A-picture by Universal’s standards and it looks extremely good, hardly surprising given that the cinematographer was Rudolph Maté. There are some nice visual touches, especially the river scenes.

The Flame of New Orleans is included in Universal’s superb Marlene Dietrich Glamor Collection DVD boxed set. Don’t be put off by the lack of extras or the fact that the five movies come on two double-sided discs. The transfers are gorgeous and all five movies are must-sees if you’re a Dietrich fan.

The Flame of New Orleans is a frothy very amusing and totally captivating romantic comedy. This is a very lightweight movie indeed but if you’re looking for pure entertainment this movie should be just what the doctor ordered. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

more reviews from my Cult Movie Reviews blog

Some reviews from my Cult Movie Reviews blog that might interest readers of this blog as well.

First off, the notorious Howard Hughes-produced The Conqueror (1956), with John Wayne as Genghis Khan. Generally regarded as one of the worst movies ever made but actually it’s quite entertaining in an odd sort of way. Plus it has Susan Hayward chewing the scenery, something she always did well.

Secondly, another Howard Hughes-produced John Wayne vehicle, Jet Pilot (1957). This movie also has a poor reputation but it’s very entertaining. Janet Leigh co-stars as a sexy Russian fighter pilot.

And thirdly, The Night of the Generals, but this one is strictly for masochists. If you’re a connoisseur of outrageously bad acting then Peter O’Toole’s performance might amuse you.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Pursuit to Algiers (1945)

Pursuit to Algiers, released in 1945, was the twelfth of the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes movies (and the tenth to be made by Universal). Leonard Lee’s original screenplay was partly inspired by one of the Conan Doyle stories, The Adventure of the Red Circle.

Dr Watson has persuaded Holmes that he what he really needs is a holiday in Scotland, but of course we know that every time a fictional detective plans a holiday an important case will come up to disrupt any such recreational activities. In this case it’s a very important case (and it’s very cleverly set up with a serious of ingenious clues leading Holmes and Watson to the rendezvous where they learn the details of the case).

The King of the fictional country of Rovinia has been assassinated and it is vital that the heir to the throne, currently being educated in England, should reach his country in safety before the conspirators who murdered his father can take over the government. Holmes accepts the task of escorting the prince (or rather the new king) to Rovinia.

The only aircraft available for this task is a three-seater which means that Dr Watson will be unable to accompany his old friend. This however gives Holmes an idea - Watson can travel to Rovinia by sea and serve as a kind of decoy.

In fact both Holmes and Watson end up spending most of the movie on board the ship headed for Algiers, where the new king will find safety. The difficulty will be to keep him alive until then, quite a challenge as there will be attempts on his life using poison, knives and even explosives. Obviously there are assassins on board the ship and Holmes will have to discover their identity, and of course he may end up becoming a victim as well.  

The Universal Sherlock Holmes movies brought the great detective into contemporary times, with many of the films dealing with specifically 1940s concerns. This particular film though feels like it could easily have been set in the 1920s, or even the 1890s for that matter. Plots involving monarchs of mythical middle European countries were a staple of late Victorian and Edwardian thrillers such as Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda (and were still popular in the 20s in books like Dornford Yates’ Blood Royal). And the opening scenes of the movie have the atmosphere of the London of the original Conan Doyle stories. By the time this movie was released the war was over and Universal obviously decided it would be wise to get right away from wartime themes. Pursuit to Algiers has an old-fashioned feel for a 1945 movie but I find that to be quite refreshing. 

Unfortunately Leonard Lee’s screenplay isn’t terribly inspired. The identities of the bad guys are revealed much too early on and they’re too obvious. There’s a token attempt to set up a few red herrings but they’re unconvincing. There’s also an entirely irrelevant sub-plot concerning stolen jewels.

This movie is also weakened by the generally uninteresting villains. The one bright spot is Martin Kosleck’s performance as the sinister knife-throwing Mirko. Mirko’s attempt to murder Holmes provides one of the movie’s few highlights - a brief scene that is rather neatly executed.

Marjorie Riordan provides some glamour as an American singer to whom Watson takes a shine but her part in the movie is really just rather clumsy padding.

Luckily Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce are as watchable as ever. Bruce actually gets several strong scenes, the best being the one in which he hears of the supposed death of Holmes. He also gets to sing in this movie! And he gets to tell the passengers about one of the famous unrecorded cases of Sherlock Holmes, the adventure of the Giant Rat of Sumatra.

Director Roy William Neill does his best to keep things interesting with plenty of night scenes, lots of fog and a few reasonably impressive visual moments.

Pursuit to Algiers is definitely one of the lesser movies in this series. It’s hard to go wrong with mysteries and thrillers set on board trains or ships but in this case the shipboard setting is not enough to compensate for a weak script. It’s not a terrible movie and it does provide reasonable entertainment, and Rathbone and Bruce are very good as always (Bruce is particularly good), but it’s not quite up to the standard of the better Rathbone-Bruce Holmes movies. Worth a look for serious fans of the series.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

China Clipper (1936)

China Clipper is a 1936 First National Pictures aviation drama inspired by the early history of Pan American Airways. The flying sequences are the highlight but it’s quite a good little movie.

Dave Logan (Pat O’Brien) had been a pilot in the First World War. He’d given up flying in order to get a respectable job with prospects (being newly married). Then he sees the ticker-tape parade for Charles Lindberg and the flying bug bites him again. Dave Logan is a going into the aviation business.

Business is the operative word. Logan is not interested in being a barnstorming pilot. He wants to run an airline. A real airline, on the grand scale. He even has a visions of operating a trans-Pacific air service, even though people keep assuring him that such a thing is impossible.

Trans Ocean Airways gets off to a rocky start, with bankruptcy a constant threat. Logan’s faith in the future of aviation is however unswerving. The future of his marriage seems far less assured. 

Logan recruits a few of his old flying buddies from the First World War, including Hap Stuart (Humphrey Bogart) and Tom Collins (Ross Alexander). He also has the services of visionary aircraft designer Dad Brunn (Henry B. Walthall), who shares his faith that one day giant airliners will fly the Pacific. 

As his marriage breaks up Logan starts to change. He is even more driven (not a bad thing  in that those pioneer aviating days) but he seems to be becoming less human. He drives his people very hard indeed, perhaps too hard. Nothing matters to Logan apart from the airline.

Finally Dad Brunn comes up with an aircraft design that can make Logan’s dreams a reality - the famous China Clipper (in reality a Martin M-130 flying boat). The problem is that the airline has to make the first trans-Pacific flight before a certain date, otherwise they lose their landing rights. So it’s a race against time - and against a typhoon.

The movie balances melodrama and exciting flying sequences extremely well. Very wisely they elected to make the aircraft the real stars and we see a lot of them. Much of the footage is of the actual China Clipper (you can clearly see the Pan American markings on the aircraft even though in the movie the airline is supposed to be Trans Ocean Airways). This movie is reminiscent of Howard Hawks’ great aviation movies of the 30s like Ceiling Zero and Only Angels Have Wings - the emphasis is on the heroism of man against nature. Of course it goes without saying that the Hawks movies have a lot more depth and complexity. China Clipper is much more upbeat and optimistic.

Pat O’Brien doesn’t shout as much as usual. He seems to be aiming for subtlety here and he does a reasonable job. It would have been interesting to see what Bogart might have done with the lead role a few years later but in 1936 he didn’t yet have the acting chops for it. As it stands Bogart he’s fine as the cheerful if sometimes rebellious Hap Stuart and his performance is all the more effective for being deliberately underplayed. Hap is a brave man and he doesn’t need to make a song and dance about it. He relies on calmness, competence and efficiency.

Ross Alexander is breezy and engaging as the loyal Tom Collins. Beverly Roberts is solid as Logan’s wife Jean but the part is badly underwritten. Marie Wilson provides comic relief as the girlfriend Tom Collins just can’t get rid of. This comic relief is kept to a minimum but what there is of it is quite amusing.

Director Ray Enright’s career did not reach any great heights but he keeps things moving along briskly.

The Warner Archive made-on-demand DVD release provides no extras but a good transfer. 

China Clipper is very much a movie for aviation fans. There are lots of cool 1920s and 1930s aircraft, especially flying boats and lots of flying. It avoids most of the expected clichés of aviation movies - the driving ambition of Dave Logan and the quiet heroism of the pilots is enough to carry the film without requiring any bad guys or conspiracies or complex sub-plots. The epic trans-Pacific flight is what this movie is all about and that’s what it concentrates on. Fine entertainment. Recommended.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Spin a Dark Web (1956)

Spin a Dark Web (the original British title was Soho Incident) is a fine example of the excellent mystery thriller B-movies the British film industry produced in such abundance from the late 40s up to the beginning of the 60s.

Jim Bankley (Lee Patterson) had spent much of World War 2 in Britain while serving in the Signal Corps in the Canadian Army. Now he’s drifted back to England and hooked up with an old army buddy. The buddy thinks he can get Jim a job with Rico Francesi (Martin Benson). Francesi has a number of profitable enterprises going, none of them legal. That doesn’t bother Jim. He is tired of poverty and determined to escape from it and if that means being on the wrong side of the law that’s no a problem for him. Jim however is no thug. Criminal activities are one thing but he has no desire to get mixed up in any kind of violent crime.

The idea of having a telecommunications whizz-kid becoming involved with gangsters had been used in the excellent 1950 American film noir 711 Ocean Drive (although the storylines of the two films are otherwise quite dissimilar).

Jim’s experience in the Signal Corps gives Francesi an idea for what should turn out to be a profitable racetrack sting.

Jim has also attracted the attention of Francesi’s beautiful sister Bella (Faith Domergue). She’s not only beautiful but sophisticated and charming. And very dangerous, although Jim is not yet aware of the dangers she poses.

Everything seems to be going along rather nicely for our hero but there is a fly in the ointment. One of Francesi’s boys got a bit too enthusiastic when laying down the law to a prize fighter who had cost Francesi a lot of money by refusing to take a dive and this excess of enthusiasm had fatal results. As a consequence the police are now taking a rather close interest in Francesi’s operations.

It was quite common in the 50s for British film producers to import second-string American stars for lead roles in low-budget crime pictures. Lee Patterson does not however fall into this category. He was born in Canada but based himself in England until the end of the 50s and had quite a considerable career in the British film industry as a B-movie leading man. All his leading roles were in B-pictures but they were often remarkably good - he seemed to have a knack for landing good parts in very decent movies such as The Flying Scot and Deadly Record. Part of the reason he got pretty good roles was that he happened to be a fine actor and also happened to be absolutely perfect for mystery thrillers with a film noir tinge. He could be tough but very likeable at the same time making him ideal as a film noir-style protagonist. His performance in Spin a Dark Web is typically solid and impressive. Jim Bankley is an over-confident young man possessed of flexible ethics but he’s really a nice guy. Too nice to be getting involved with serious criminals.

American Faith Domergue had seemed destined for stardom after attracting the attention of Howard Hughes. Although the romance did not last Hughes did initially push her film career. After a couple of lead roles in movies like the underrated Where Danger Lives her career began to falter. In the mid-50s she made a couple of films in Britain - the excellent sci-fi thriller Timeslip and Spin a Dark Web. She’s an actress who should have had a much better career and in this film her performance is very effective - she’s a femme fatale but a subtle femme fatale. Bella is also a somewhat up-market femme fatale. 

Rico Francesi is an interesting villain. He’s actually not particularly evil. Certainly he’s as crooked as they come but violence is not really his line. A bit of mild strong-arm stuff might be necessary on occasions but he prefers to rely on the threat of aggravation rather than the reality. Unfortunately his employees aren’t always as subtle and as sensible, even though Francesi does his best to persuade them to avoid any excesses in that area.

Bella Francesi has fewer scruples than her brother when it comes to violence. In fact she has no scruples at all.

The screenplay is by Ian Stuart Black, who went on to a successful career as a writer for some of the more interesting television series of the 60s such as Danger Man, The Man in Room 17, Adam Adamant Lives! and The Champions. What could have been a routine plot is enlivened by a couple of unexpected touches.

Vernon Sewell was a reliable B-feature director and he does a perfectly competent job here.

Just as interesting as the story are the glimpses of the slightly seedy but slightly flashy side of London in the 50s - the fleshpots of Soho, espresso bars, the tawdry glamour of dog racing tracks. This atmospheric location shooting combines with a fair number of night scenes to give the film a very definite film noir feel.

The plot itself certainly leans towards noir, with Jim Bankley being a man who discovers that being a fairly nice guy with flexible ethical standards can get you into a lot of trouble, and getting emotionally involved with a gangster’s sister can get you into even worse hot water.

Spin a Dark Web is available as a made-on-demand DVD in Sony’s Choice Collection. The transfer is anamorphic and very satisfactory. There are no extras.

Spin a Dark Web is very much a B-picture but it has genuine film noir atmosphere, good performances and a serviceable if not wildly original plot. This all adds up to a pretty entertaining package. Recommended.

Monday, October 26, 2015

My Favorite Brunette (1947)

My Favorite Brunette is a spoof of the hard-boiled private eye movie and it’s a spoof that actually works. Bob Hope, Dorothy Lamour and Peter Lorre all contribute to the success of this thoroughly enjoyable picture.

Ronnie Jackson (Bob Hope) is a baby photographer awaiting execution in San Quentin. He tells his story in flashback with voiceover narration in approved private eye movie style.

Ronnie Jackson didn’t want to be a baby photographer. He wanted to be a hard-boiled private eye. His office is on the same floor as that of private eye Sam McCloud and Jackson is constantly trying to persuade McCloud to take him on as his partner. He tells McCloud that he could be a tough guy PI just like Humphrey Bogart or Dick Powell. Or even Alan Ladd. The joke here being that Sam McCloud is played by Alan Ladd!

The closest Ronnie gets to his dream is answering Sam’s phone for him while he’s out of town working on a case. When a client turns up and assumes that Ronnie is Sam McCloud he sees his chance. He lets her think he really is the private eye and he takes on the case. The fact that Carlotta Montay (Dorothy Lamour) seems just like the kind of dame who would be in need of a private eye in a movie has quite a lot to do with Ronnie’s decision. 

Carlotta’s husband has disappeared. Or it may be her uncle. Her story keeps changing. Her story changes so much that Ronnie is inclined to believe that she’s crazy, and that’s what everyone seems to be trying to persuade him really is the case. But what if she’s not crazy? What if her story about a secret map, and a kidnapped uncle (or husband) and a nefarious plot to gain control of valuable mineral rights is true?

It’s all very exciting, just like in the movies. Except that when the sinister Kismet (Peter Lorre) keeps trying to kill him Ronnie’s excitement turns to abject fear. Being a tough guy isn’t so much fun when you’re likely to get hurt! But Ronnie is already in too deep, plus he’s fallen for Carlotta so he’s persuaded to press on with the case, even when both he and Carlotta find themselves locked up in a mental hospital.

The reason this movie works so well is that the screenwriters (Edmund Beloin and Jack Rose) and the director (Elliott Nugent) really do understand the private eye genre. The actors understand the genre as well. Even Bob Hope understands how to deliver hard-boiled dialogue. It’s a movie that respects the genre it is spoofing and that’s why the spoof works. 

Plus the gags really are funny.

Hope is a delight as the hapless Ronnie Jackson, desperately trying to pretend to be the tough guy that he isn’t. Dorothy Lamour has great fun vamping it up as Carlotta. Peter Lorre of course was equally adept at both comedic and sinister villainous henchmen roles and in this movie he gets to do both, with his usual effortless style. Lon Chaney Jr adds to the fun as the simple-minded sanitarium orderly Willie (clearly spoofing his own most famous role in Of Mice and Men). 

There are plenty of movie in-jokes and you won’t be surprised when Bing Crosby turns up in a brief but amusing cameo.

It all works because it has an actual plot (and a fairly serviceable one) and the plot is taken quite seriously. This makes Bob Hope’s performance all the funnier. This is not just a series of gags strung together. The humour comes from the fact that Ronnie Jackson is put in exactly the kinds of situations that the hero of a private eye movie would find himself in.

My Favorite Brunette has had numerous DVD releases. The Region 4 release from Passport offers a passably acceptable transfer but there are undoubtedly better versions available.

My Favorite Brunette is a delight from start to finish. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The Golden Eye (1948)

The Golden Eye marked the fourth appearance of Roland Winters in the role of Charlie Chan. By 1948 when this film appeared the Chan series was clearly approaching the end of its run.

The early Charlie Chan movies had been made by 20th Century-Fox. When Fox lost interest in the series star Sidney Toler bought the rights himself hoping the films would be picked up by another studio. Unfortunately only Poverty Row studio Monogram was interested (or perhaps in some ways fortunately since it is unlikely any other studio would have continued the series for so long). When Toler died in 1947 Roland Winters took over for the last six films.

The Golden Eye sees Charlie Chan in an unusual setting - in Arizona surrounded by cowboys! 

Chan is investigating a series of attempts on the life of a man named Manning who owns the Golden Eye gold mine. The mine has produced very little gold for many years but  suddenly it seems to be producing gold in prodigious quantities. The latest attempt on Manning’s life has left him in a coma. Charlie Chan sets out for Arizona, accompanied by Number Two Son Tommy (which is a bit puzzling since Number Two Son was known as JImmy in earlier Chan movies) and Charlie’s faithful if somewhat cowardly chauffeur Birmingham.

San Francisco cop Lieutenant Mike Ruark is also interested in the Golden Eye mine although he’s approaching the case from a slightly different angle.

There’s really not much to the plot of this one and what there is would have seemed rather tired even back in 1948. It does however afford the opportunity to have Charlie and his assistants do a good deal of running about in mine shafts providing a certain amount of excitement.

Production values were obviously a lot lower on the Monogram Chan movies compared to the fairly slick Fox movies. That’s not a huge problem in this case. The old gold mine provides a decent setting for the action and suspense scenes. It’s the one moderately ambitious set they had and they made sure they got plenty of use out of it.

Director William “One-Shot” Beaudine was renowned for his ability to get low-budget movies made on time and on budget. What you expect from a Beaudine-directed movie is basic reasonably competent no frills film-making and that’s what you get here. Scott Darling’s screenplay is equally basic.

The big problem here is not the low budget, it’s the excessive level of comic relief. Do we really need three actors providing comic relief? Mantan Moreland as Birmingham is very much an acquired taste. It’s a taste that I personally have never really managed to acquire but you can’t fault his enthusiasm. With Moreland handling much of the film’s somewhat laboured comedy Victor Sen Yung as Number Two Son actually gets to do a few useful and even moderately intelligent and heroic things.

The problem with Roland Winters as Chan is not his performance as such but the fact that he doesn’t look even remotely Chinese. Warner Oland (who always claimed to be part-Asian anyway) and Sidney Toler could just about get away with it but there’s no way anyone is going to be able to suspend their disbelief enough to buy Roland Winters as a Chinese. Apart from that he’s adequate enough but his Chan is less interesting than the interpretations of the role by Oland and Toler. 

At 69 minutes this movie feels like it could easily have been edited down to 59 minutes. There’s just not quite enough plot to go around.

Having said all this The Golden Eye is not a complete loss by any means. By Monogram standards it looks quite impressive. The scenes at Manning’s ranch give it a more expansive and less studiuo-bound feel than most Poverty Row B-features. It has quite a bit of action and even a surprising amount of gunplay. At times it has more of the feel of a western than a mystery but this makes it more interesting. Roland Winters might look very very caucasian indeed but he was the youngest actor to date to play Chan and he’s spry enough to participate in the action scenes.

If you’ve never seen a Charlie Chan movie you would be far better off starting out with one of the excellent Fox Warner Oland movies (like Charlie Chan in Shanghai) or one of the early Fox Toler films (such as Charlie Chan in Reno). On the other hand if you’re a hardcore Charlie Chan aficionado then The Golden Eye is definitely worth a look.