Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The Long Memory (1953)

John Mills might not be the first name that springs to mind when someone mentions film noir but he made several interesting British noirs including, in 1953, The Long Memory.

When we first meet Phillip Davidson (Mills) he’s just been released from prison after serving a long sentence. He was innocent of the crime and he’s bitter and as we’ll soon find out he wants revenge. We then find out what actually happened in a flashback sequence. Davidson had been hoping to marry Fay Driver (Elizabeth Sellars). Her father, a grizzled and drunken old sea captain (actually the skipper of a broken-down old tub), is mixed up in some very shady activities with some very shady people. There is a confused confrontation and then a fire breaks out on board. A body is found and Davidson finds himself facing a murder charge. All the witnesses lie at the trial but there is one betrayal that is especially painful. Davidson is convicted. He escapes the hangman’s noose but he serves twelve years and that’s not an easy thing to forget or forgive.

Davidson wants to track down three people, the three people whose evidence sent him to prison. Finding two of them is easy enough but the question is what is he going to do once he finds them?

Superintendent Lowther has had a tail on Davidson from the moment he left prison. Lowther was the man who arrested Davidson but the police had no reason to think, at the time, that there were any doubts as to Davidson’s guilt. He is however concerned by a report from the prison governor. Lots of convicted criminals vow to get revenge on those they blame for putting them inside but it’s unusual for them to nurse a grudge for twelve years. Lowther believes it’s very possible that Davidson may really be intending to take his revenge. Lowther is a good cop and in this case he hopes to prevent a crime. There is another reason for the Superintendent’s concern. One of the three people Davidson is looking for is the Superintendent’s wife.

Also taking a keen interest in the case is a reporter named Craig (Geoffrey Keen). He knows that there could certainly be a story here. Craig is a good reporter but he has a conscience as well (I know such a thing is wildly implausible but it’s a case where you have to suspend your disbelief).

We can understand Davidson’s desire for vengeance but at the same time we know that this time he could destroy his life completely and he’s basically a good man and we don’t want that to happen. Especially when, quite by chance, he stumbles onto something that could make his life worth living.

Unfortunately he has set certain events in motion and now, even if he were to change his mind, he may not be able to stop those events from unfolding in a way that could bring ruin to both the guilty and the innocent.

Robert Hamer was a very fine and justly celebrated director who contrived to wreck his own career through his weakness for the bottle. He does a fine job here.

This was an A-picture so there was enough money for at least one action set-piece, and it’s a reasonably satisfying one.

This movie has plenty of noir credentials. There’s a plot that is a web of lies and betrayals, there’s plenty of moody cinematography and there’s a protagonist who is a decent man who has fallen into the noir abyss and given way to impulses that might well lead him to destruction. There’s a delightfully sinister villain. There’s a Femme Fatale and there’s a Good Girl character as well. The question is whether the Good Girl can save him by persuading him to accept her love.

Mills does the noir protagonist extremely well. Davidson is an embittered man driven by a slow cold anger but we do get glimpses of the basic decency underneath. He’s trying to be hard and merciless but he’s going against his own nature. Mills was always wonderful at playing very solid and very noble heroes but he had a surprising talent for much darker and more tortured characterisations, a talent that made him ideal for film noir.

Fay belongs to the Ambiguous Femme Fatale category. She’s not an evil spider woman but rather a woman who has been put in a difficult situation and has chosen the morally wrong course of action. She has certainly managed to ruin Davidson’s life just as completely as any spider woman.

Ilse is the Good Girl. She’s a kind of stray puppy who follows Davidson home, home being the burnt-out shell of the barge that was the scene of the fatal fight that landed him in prison. Davidson wants to kick her out because he’s trying to convince himself that all he now wants out of life is revenge but she’s such a sad pathetic puppy and she’s so obviously desperate for his love that it’s not easy to steel himself to be cruel to her. Norwegian actress Eva Bergh is able to make Ilse sweet without adding too much sentimentality.

The John Mills Centenary Collection II boxed set comprises seven movies and they’re a varied bunch, which is a reasonable reflection of the breadth of his talent. It includes a couple of noirish gems - Tiger Bay and The Vicious Circle. The Long Memory gets a pretty good transfer.

The Long Memory is a satisfying crime thriller. Purists may not accept it as full-blown noir but it has enough noir credentials to please most viewers and it’s very definitely entertaining. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

The Flesh is Weak (1957)

The Flesh is Weak is a 1957 British production which seems on the surface like it’s going to be a lurid expose of the prostitution racket in England. And it is quite daring by the standards of the time. It has perhaps some very slight claim to be a film noir, or at least a film likely to be of interest to noir fans due to its fairly gritty approach to its subject matter.

Marissa (Milly Vitale) is just the latest in a long line of innocent girls ensnared by vice racketeer Tony Giani (John Derek) and his brother Angelo (Martin Benson). Marissa has only been in London a few days when she is offered a job as a hostess in a club. One of the patrons starts to get a bit too sleazy with her and she is rescued just in time by a handsome white knight. He will take her away from such sordid surroundings. He offers her fun and romance. He’s a terribly nice guy and of course Marissa falls for him. There’s only one slight problem. They can’t get married until his divorce comes through.

Yes, it’s the oldest line in the book and Marissa falls for it. In fact her handsome and sensitive white knight is Tony Giani and he’s a pimp. He’s persuaded her to take the bait and now he’s reeling her in.

Lloyd Buxton (William Franklyn) has been taking a particular interest in the activities of the Giani brothers. He’s a journalist and he’s working on a book. He wants to uncover the truth behind the vice racket but to do that he has to persuade the girls to talk to him, and that is easier said than done. The girls know that talking to cops or reporters is something that is likely to be very bad for their health. 

There’s little the police can do, since it’s impossible to make any charges stick as long as the girls are unwilling to talk. It’s slightly unusual for a 1950s British crime movie to portray the police as completely impotent and not overly interested.

Tony Giani believes in taking his time before putting a girl to work. He spends weeks grooming them, sweet-talking them and making sure the fall in love with him, and then he uses some ingenious emotional manipulation to persuade them that they’re actually doing it for love. The idea is to get them to be entirely willing recruits to prostitution.

Tony’s grooming of Marissa occupies a very large chunk of the film and I must confess that I found that it stretched credibility a bit. No-one could possibly be as dumb as Marissa. No-one could be that innocent. I also found it a bit difficult to buy the idea of Marissa as a completely innocent victim. After all she believed that Tony was married but she was quite willing to start an affair with him (and the movie makes it very plain that they are sleeping together). So she was quite happy with the idea of stealing another woman’s husband, but then we’re supposed to believe she’s as pure as the driven snow. To my way of thinking this movie is a bit too determined to portray the girls as totally innocent victims, bearing no responsibility whatsoever for their own actions, to an extent that isn’t quite believable.

In other words it’s a bit like so many of those awful American social problem movies of the same era, presenting a simplistic good vs evil view and emotionally manipulating the viewer into accepting that simplistic view.

Lee Vance’s screenplay is somewhat plodding. Director Don Chaffey does his best but he is unable to inject any real suspense or sense of urgency into the proceedings. A major problem is that the characters we’re supposed to feel sympathy for are extremely annoying. Lloyd Buxton is a typical do-gooder. Yes he is doing the right thing but he’s terribly earnest and he’s a bit of a bore. Marissa is difficult to take seriously, for the reasons I alluded to above.

John Derek as Tony is the movie’s saving grace. He really is incredibly charming and incredibly sinister and slimy all at the same time. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable performance and although he’s the chief villain he’s a lot of fun. 

The other characters are all clichés. There’s Freda Jackson as Trixie, the whore with a heart of gold. There’s Angelo, a generic gangster figure. There’s Shirley Ann Field as Susan, another of the girls who is almost as unbelievably dumb as Marissa.

OK, maybe I’m a hard-hearted cynic, but I just didn’t buy the premise of this movie and (apart from Tony) I just didn’t buy the characters. I didn’t care what happened to Marissa because I didn’t believe in her.

This is a message movie and that’s always a red flag. It’s trying so hard to be hard-hitting and sensitive and non-sensationalistic. Actually if they’d made it as an out-and-out exploitation movie it would probably have had more impact. 

Although there’s no nudity or actual sex scenes the fact that it’s absolutely up-front about the fact that Giani’s girls are prostitutes gave it considerable shock value at the time and it was a major hit.

The Flesh is Weak has been released on an all-region DVD by Odeon Entertainment in the UK. It’s a pretty good transfer.

I was decidedly underwhelmed by The Flesh is Weak. I can’t really recommend this one.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

The Man in Grey (1943)

The Man in Grey was the first of a series of wildly successful women’s melodramas made by Britain’s Gainsborough studio in the 1940s. These movies were quite unapologetically targeted at a female audience. They were costume pictures so as well as featuring gloriously overheated melodramatic plots, forbidden love and forbidden sex, jealousies, betrayals, sexy bad boys and sexy bad girls you also get some fairly lavish period sets and  gorgeous costumes. The Man in Grey makes no attempt to be art. It’s a steamy Regency romance and it was a massive box office hit in Britain.

There’s a framing story set in 1940s England which I personally thought was a bit unnecessary but it does add even more romance and that’s what this movie is all about. The actual story takes place in Regency England. A new pupil arrives at an exclusive girls’ school. The other girls are all from rich families but Hesther Shaw (Margaret Lockwood) is a penniless orphan who has only been accepted because the headmistress owed her mother a favour. Hesther is very aware of her poverty. She is proud and resentful. She also has some definite long term plans to escape from poverty.

An unlikely friendship develops between Hesther and Clarissa Marr (Phyllis Calvert). Clarissa is Hesther’s opposite in every way. Hesther is a raven-haired beauty, Clarissa is blonde. Clarissa is all sweetness and light and assumes that everybody will like her. Hesther doesn’t care if people like her or not as long as they don’t interfere with her plans. This girlish friendship comes to an end when Hesther scandalises the school by eloping with a handsome but decidedly not respectable man.

The most eligible bachelor of the time is the young and handsome Lord Rohan (James Mason). Lord Rohan does not have a very good reputation. He devotes his life to pleasures of a frankly sensual nature and he is gloomy and moody. On the other hand he has a very distinguished title and oodles of money. In other words he’s the type of man to set female hearts a-flutter. Rohan has no interest in marriage but he does need to produce an heir so he will have to marry someone and Clarissa Marr seems as suitable as anyone. Clarissa, who is as naïve as she is sweet, accepts his proposal.

Not surprisingly Clarissa finds marriage to be very disagreeable. She seems to have found her wedding night to be particularly disagreeable. Rohan then explains the facts to her. All she has to do is to bear him a son. Once she does that they can live more or less separate lives, each free to have affairs as long as they are discreet. Lord Rohan has little time for conventional morality but he dreads scandal. The arrangement seems to suit Clarissa. And then she runs into her old school friend Hesther. She also runs into an old acquaintance of Hesther’s. Hesther and Rokeby (Stewart Granger) are in the theatre. Not a respectable profession in the early years of the 19th century and Hesther and Rokeby are traveling players, even less respectable. At the time actresses were assumed to be at lest part-time prostitutes and in fact it does seem quite likely to be true in Hesther’s case. Hesther is penniless and unhappy and Clarissa, who just wants everybody to be happy, comes up with a brilliant idea. She’ll persuade her husband to employ Hesther as their son’s governess. When she runs it by Lord Rohan he suggests something even more brilliant - Hesther can be employed as a companion for his wife.

Of course things are going to get very complicated. Rokeby, who is actually the owner of an estate in Jamaica that has been overrun by rebellious slaves, gets a job as librarian to Lord Rohan and soon he and Clarissa have fallen madly in love and are having an affair. Meanwhile Hesther has achieved her first major goal and has become Lord Rohan’s mistress. It sounds like a workable arrangement. Clarissa doesn’t care if her husband sleeps with other women - as long as he doesn’t want to sleep with her she’s happy. And Rohan has no objection at all to Clarissa sleeping with anyone she likes as long as she’s discreet.

Unfortunately not everybody is as discreet as they should be and Hesther is still plotting, still aiming at something more than just being a nobleman’s mistress. Hesther’s ambitions and Rokeby’s recklessness are going to bring everything crashing down.

As you may have gathered there’s a great deal of implied sex and most of it is very definitely illicit, if not perverse as well. And the film is pretty open about it all. It raised some eyebrows at the time and there are moments that still seem pretty damned steamy even today. Much of this is due to the casting. James Mason is of course perfectly suited to the role of the slightly dissipated, somewhat cruel and generally dangerous nobleman. Margaret Lockwood was one of the screen’s all-time great bad girls. She and Mason would team up again in The Wicked Lady and together they’re sexual dynamite. Phyllis Calvert has a difficult role since she has to make Clarissa convincingly naïve without making her seem stupid and she has to make her sweet and good-natured without being cloying. On the whole she manages it fairly well. Stewart Granger makes a wonderful reckless romantic hero (it turns out he’s really a nobleman as well but the slaves took over his estate in the West Indies).

The characterisations are not quite as unsubtle as you might expect. Lord Rohan is a bad boy but he’s not really a villain. Clarissa is sweet and wants to please people but she’s not especially virtuous. Rokeby is excitable but well-meaning. Hesther is definitely wicked, in fact very wicked indeed, but life has dealt her a bad hand so we can at least understand her motivations .

There’s a good deal of political incorrectness in this film. If it shocked audiences in the 40s it’s quite likely to shock modern audiences although for different reasons. 

Network’s Region 2 DVD release offers a fairly good transfer and, unusually for this company, some extras including a documentary on James Mason’s career. This movie has also been released in Region 1 in a boxed set in Criterion’s Eclipse series. 

This is a movie that packs as much twisted romance and illicit sexuality into its running time as it can. It’s a women’s picture, a chick flick if you like, so if you’re male you have been warned. It’s an out-and-out melodrama and it’s an unashamed bodice ripper but it’s a stylish and well-made example of both breeds and if that’s what you’re looking for then it delivers the goods. Highly recommended.

Monday, July 24, 2017

The Counterfeit Plan (1957)

Phony money is naturally the name of the game in the slightly noir-tinged 1957 British crime melodrama The Counterfeit Plan.

The movie opens with a fine action set-piece as Max Brant (Zachary Scott) makes a daring escape from the custody of the French police. Brant had been set to face the guillotine, for murder, so we know immediately that we’re dealing with a pretty ruthless character here. Brant and Duke (Lee Patterson) make their way to England. Brant wants to renew an old acquaintanceship, with Louie Bernard (Mervyn Johns). Louie lives in a large and gracious country house. He is the personification of the respectable country gentleman. Except that his life of luxury and gentility is based entirely on crime. Louie is an engraver of genius and he has put his genius to lucrative, if dishonest, use. 

Max is planning the counterfeiting racket to end all counterfeiting rackets. It’s going to be on a very large scale and nothing will be left to chance. The plates will be perfect, the paper will be perfect, the ink will be perfect. These counterfeit notes will be indistinguishable from the real thing.

This is going to be time-consuming and expensive but you have to spend money to make money. Max is no small-time hood. He’s an entrepreneur of crime.

The plan is carefully thought out. It’s fool-proof. It is a minor concern that Louie wants nothing to do with it and has to be coerced into agreement. There’s also another small problem. Louie’s hands are no longer steady enough to do the engraving. Luckily Louie’s daughter Carole (Peggie Castle) has inherited his artistic skills so she can do the engraving under Louie’s supervision.

Mention of Carole brings us to another very tiny potential problem. Carole is a straight arrow. She also has to be coerced into agreeing to take part in this scheme. A problem that Max doesn’t even know about yet is that Carole has a boyfriend who is likely to turn up at any moment.

So obviously Max’s fool-proof plan has some major weaknesses but Max is a positive-thinking kind of guy. The thought of failure does not occur to him. He has good people in his outfit. Duke provides useful muscle but he’s more than just a henchman. He has a fine organisational talent and he has experience in counterfeiting schemes. Max also has the services of corrupt ex-cop Sam Watson (David Lodge) whose inside knowledge of police procedures should give the gang an edge.

Max intends to print so much fake money that his own gang could not possible pass all the notes themselves so his plan is to divide the country up into territories and sell the notes in bulk to other criminal gangs who will then worry about the details of distribution. It’s a very ambitious idea and obviously it means that a very large number of people are going to know about it. This is yet another potential weakness.

In fact that’s one of the things that makes the movie interesting. There are so many flaws in Max’s plan that you know it has to fail and yet it’s fun watching Max sail on so confidently, sublimely unaware of impending disaster. These criminals are both extremely clever and extremely stupid. Max’s stupidity comes from his arrogance. He thinks he’s a criminal mastermind. He almost could be, but not quite.

This is a Merton Park Studios production but it looks slightly more expensive than their usual output. It was released in the US by Warner Brothers so it’s possible that some American money found its way into the production allowing a more expansive feel (with some location shooting) than usual. Montgomery Tully was a good solid journeyman director accustomed to getting decent results on limited budgets.

The elaborate nature of Max’s scheme and the fact that the movie spends a great deal of time on the intricate planning and organisation that goes into that scheme makes this movie a kind of forerunner of the heist movies that would become such a feature of 1960s movie-making.

Zachary Scott captures Max’s crazy delusions of criminal grandeur extremely well. Lee Patterson was always reliable in this sort of movie. Eric Pohlmann is fun as a rival gangster.

There are a couple of features that might have been considered quite shocking in 1957, including a rape (you don’t see it but it’s made crystal clear what happened).

The Counterfeit Plan has been released on DVD in Britain by Network and on made-on-demand DVD in the US in the Warner Archive series. The version I have is the Network version which is uncut. The Warner Archive release is apparently a shorter cut version and given that the Network release looks superb and even has a few extras that’s obviously the one to go for.

By the way, whatever you do don’t watch the trailers before you watch the movie - they give away a huge spoiler.

The Counterfeit Plan might be about phony money but it delivers genuine entertainment. Highly recommended.

Monday, July 17, 2017

I Cover the Waterfront (1933)

I Cover the Waterfront is a lurid newspaper melodrama released by United Artists in 1933. And it delivers the goods.

Joe Miller (Ben Lyon) is an embittered hardboiled newspaper reporter who covers the waterfront for The Standard. He’s tired of the job and he’s tired of the city and he’s very very tired of the waterfront. This is the middle of the Depression though and even if he hates it it is a good job and he’s good at it. He’s a good newspaperman. That’s why he hates himself so much. All self-respecting good newspapermen hate themselves, because it’s a dirty job and you can only succeed if you have no morals at all. You don’t get good stories by being a Boy Scout.

Joe has found what he thinks is a very good story. He’s convinced that local fisherman Eli Kirk (Ernest Torrence) is involved in a racket bringing Chinese illegal immigrants into the country. He just can’t find hard evidence. Eli is cunning and ruthless and if he’s boarded and searched by the Coast Guard he makes sure he destroys the evidence beforehand. He does this is an effective but brutal way, by throwing the illegal immigrants overboard (weighted with chains so they sink real fast).

In the meantime there are routine stories to cover. Like a report of a young woman swimming in the sea. The fact that she’s swimming in the sea isn’t the problem, it’s the fact that she’s stark naked. He spots the girl easily enough (strangely enough men usually don’t have much problem spotting naked women) and she turns out to be Julie Kirk, the daughter of Eli Kirk. She’s played by Claudette Colbert and what follows is a delightful exchange of pre-code banter between Joe and the nude Julie (sheltering behind a rock as a token concession to decency).

Joe realises this could be his big opportunity. If he romances Julie he might get some information on Eli’s people-smuggling operation. It’s a mean low-down cynical thing to do but he’s a reporter and such things come naturally to him. Of course there are going to be complications. Julie is a sweet kid and he gets to be rather fond of her, especially after he sleeps with her. Their spending the night together follows a memorably clever and slightly kinky seduction scene (that’s assuming you think that chaining a girl up so you can kiss her qualifies as kinky). He could fall in love with a girl like Julie (it’s not that easy to find girls who like being chained up after all).

Joe continues his relentless pursuit of Eli Kirk. Eli’s methods have become even more ingenious, and even more ruthless, but Joe is a dogged newshound and his mind is as devious as Eli’s. All Joe needs is a small amount of luck and soon it looks like he’s going to get it.

There’s at least one pretty exciting action scene. There’s plenty of atmosphere - the waterfront itself becomes a character in the movie. There’s hardboiled dialogue. There’s shocking, and unusual, crime. There’s romance. There’s a decent plot and the pacing is lively.

This is a pre-code movie and it has its share of the salacious elements that pre-code fans seem to enjoy. The sexual relationship between Joe and Julie is taken for granted. There’s risque dialogue. And there’s nudity. Yes, there’s an actual nude scene although you’ll need good eyes to see anything since it’s a long shot. A very long shot. But I’m assured that if you have good eyesight you can see what is presumably Colbert’s body double’s naked bottom.

Ben Lyon is reasonably good as Joe although an actor with a bit more charisma would have helped. Colbert does her best to generate the required sexual heat and since that was something she was pretty good at (OK it was something she was very good at) she almost succeeds but somehow the chemistry between the two leads isn’t quite there. You can understand why Joe falls for Julie. This is Claudette Colbert at her most beautiful and she has those big big eyes and any man with a pulse would fall for her. It’s not so clear why Julie would fall for the morose and cynical Joe. He doesn’t even have a bad boy vibe going for him.

Colbert’s other problem is that she’s too classy to be convincing as a fisherman’s daughter. It doesn’t really matter. She’s charming and sexy and likeable and she’s a fine actress and she gets away with it.

I found a copy of this movie in one of those Mill Creek public domain compilation boxed sets, their Diva 20-movie pack (which I don’t even remember buying). The transfer is iffy in places but generally watchable. 

I Cover the Waterfront is slightly racy fast-moving entertainment and Claudette Colbert in fine form is hard to resist. It’s a lot better than most pre-code movies because it doesn’t just rely on its mildly risque elements. Highly recommended.

Monday, July 10, 2017

The Lady Vanishes (1938)

Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes was based on Ethel Lina White’s 1936 novel The Wheel Spins. The novel is somewhat clumsy in execution and is far from satisfactory but the central story idea had obvious cinematic possibilities. Screenwriters Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder were able to streamline the story and the result was a light-hearted comedy thriller that is one of the most engaging films of Hitchcock’s early British period.

Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) is a spoilt rich English girl on holiday in an obscure central European country. She feels that she has now experienced everything that life has to offer and all that is left now is marriage. She is after all in her early twenties and life has little more to offer someone of such advanced years. 

Now the season is almost over and it’s time for the motley collection of English visitors to head back to England.

Just before boarding the train Iris receives an accidental blow to the head. She’s not really injured but it leaves her with a headache and it will have consequences.

On the train she shares a compartment with a mysterious central European baroness, an amiable Italian family and Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty), a slightly dotty late middle-aged English spinster. Iris would not usually tolerate such a companion but having left her friends behind at the hotel she is grateful to find someone who speaks English.

Then Miss Froy vanishes. It is as if she never existed, In fact everyone on the train seems determined to convince Iris that Miss Froy really is non-existent, a delusion brought on by that blow to the head.

The only person who seems to be inclined to believe her is young musicologist Gilbert (Michael Redgrave) but it soon becomes apparent that he doesn’t really believe her either. Iris had clashed with Gilbert at the hotel and conceived an immediate dislike for him but now she needs any ally she can find. Eventually Iris starts to think that perhaps she did imagine Miss Froy, and then she finds actual evidence of her existence, but the evidence vanishes as well.

If Miss Froy did exist then there is some kind of conspiracy afoot but as Gilbert points out, who on earth would want to harm such a harmless old lady? If she never did exist then perhaps Iris is not quite sane. That’s the opinion of the smooth Dr Hartz (Paul Lukacs) and he’s a brain expert so he should know.

The source novel has a melodramatic and somewhat outrageous plot but takes things fairly seriously. The screenplay makes the plot even melodramatic and even more outrageous and Hitchcock wisely elects to treat it as a light-hearted semi-comedic romantic romp. This succeeds perfectly. The film works as a fine suspense thriller, the comedy is genuinely funny and thanks to the two leads, Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave, the romance angle really sparkles.

Lockwood would go on to become the biggest star in British cinema in the 40s. She was just twenty-two when The Lady Vanishes was made but her performance is confident and assured. Iris is a selfish spoilt girl but being rather lonely and vulnerable on the train made her inclined to feel a certain affection towards the daffy but kind-hearted Miss Froy and the old lady’s disappearance leads Iris to perform the first truly unselfish and noble act of her life. She is going to save Miss Froy. In the course of this adventure Iris starts to grow up and starts to realise that her life might seem less empty if she tried thinking about other people rather than just herself. Lockwood handles the subtle character development very adroitly, and without turning Iris into a sentimental milksop.

Iris’s unselfish and rather courageous campaign to save Miss Froy has its effect on Gilbert as well. He had disliked Iris at first but now he suspects that there may be more to her. She might even turn out to be a young woman very much worth bothering with. Gilbert also grows up to some extent in the course of the film, and discovers that women can be rather nicer than he’d previously thought. The chemistry between Lockwood and Redgrave  is perfect.

A major highlight is the comic relief provided by Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford as two absurd cricket-obsessed Englishmen. This comic team would be featured in several other films, in which they would be equally delightful.

There are of course plenty of Hitchcockian touches, with a bravura opening sequence typical of his British period. This film demonstrated that Hitchcock’s apprenticeship was well and truly over. The unfortunate result for the British film industry was that the film also made it inevitable that Hollywood would soon lure him away.

The sequence with the magic boxes in the baggage compartment does little to advance the plot but it adds a touch of screwball comedy and it’s glorious fun.

The Lady Vanishes is magnificent entertainment. Highly recommended.

Monday, July 3, 2017

The Intruder (1953)

The Intruder is a 1953 British drama that is not exactly a crime film in the conventional sense although crime does certainly play a part, and there is a manhunt.

Jack Hawkins plays Wolf Merton, a stockbroker who discovers a burglar in his home. It’s hard to say who is the more surprised of the two. Merton had been a colonel during the war, commanding a tank regiment. The burglar, Ginger Edwards (Michael Medwin) is one of the men who served under him. Actually Ginger is a bit more than that. He’s the man who saved the colonel’s life, and in fact saved the lives of an entire armoured squadron, during a particularly nasty action in North Africa.

Merton is shocked but his immediate impulse is to help the man. He might be a retired officer but he still feels a responsibility for the men who had been under his command. Unfortunately Ginger panics, throws himself through a glass door and makes a run for it.

Colonel Merton is not prepared to let the matter drop. Ginger had been a fine soldier and a thoroughly decent fellow and Merton can’t stand the idea that he should now be a  common thief. If he can find the man he may be able to find out what went wrong, what chain of misfortunes could have brought him to Merton’s house in the guise of a housebreaker.

Finding Ginger again isn’t easy. Ginger had let it slip that he still kept in touch with one of the men from the regiment and the colonel has an idea that the man in question might be Summers (George Cole). He’s almost right but then the trail seems to go cold again. Merton is sure that the man Ginger has been in touch with is one of the soldiers in a group photograph taken in North Africa.

Much of the story is told in the form of flashbacks to the war years. This technique provides a convenient way to let the viewer know the backstories of both Ginger and the colonel but it does more than that. It gives us the backstories of the various men in that wartime photograph whilst we also get to see those same men ten years later. Some of the men seem little changed while others seem almost unrecognisable. In some cases weaknesses of character already in evidence during the war have been magnified; in other cases those weaknesses have been overcome in surprising ways. 

Colonel Merton of course will also find out more about himself during the course of his search for the elusive Ginger. He is also not the only one on Ginger’s trail. The police are after Ginger as well and Merton hopes to find him before they do.

The wartime sequences are extremely well done. This is a drama but there are some comic moments as well, especially Merton’s encounter with a former corporal turned schoolmaster.

Guy Hamilton is best remembered for the four James Bond movies he directed. He does a fine job here.

Jack Hawkins was a fine actor who played a lot of army officers, a role for which he was ideally suited. Colonel Merton is an affable sort of fellow. He cared about his men during the war and now he finds to his surprise that he still cares about them. The war was an opportunity for men to show themselves at their best, or at their worst. In Merton’s case it is definitely the former. Hawkins is able to make Merton convincingly caring without excessive sentimentality. 

Hawkins gets good support from George Cole as the harassed but well-meaning Lieutenant Summers and Dennis Price as the smooth Captain Pirry, a man who has good cause not to want to remember his wartime career in too much detail. Michael Medwin is quite effective as Ginger.

Modern viewers might find the plot to be a little contrived and melodramatic (it’s hard to imagine how anyone could have as much bad luck as poor Ginger) and the ending won’t please modern audiences.

This is a thoroughly typical Network DVD release, no extras but an excellent transfer at a very reasonable price.

The Intruder is a slightly offbeat film that is worth a look. Not quite a crime film, not quite a war film, but an interesting hybrid. Recommended.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Urge to Kill (1960)

When the Edgar Wallace B-movies made by Britain’s Merton Park Studios between 1960 and 1962 were repackaged for television in the US (as the Edgar Wallace Theatre) a number of other B-movies with no Wallace connection were included as well. One of these was Urge to Kill, with a screenplay by James Eastwood and based on a play by Gerald Savory.

One thing that has to said for this movie - it hits the ground running with the first murder occurring before the two minute mark. It’s immediately obvious that this is going to be a psycho killer murder mystery.

The setting is a somewhat depressing English small town. Auntie B (Ruth Dunning) is an amiable soul who runs a boarding house. Her nephew Hughie (Terence Knapp) is moderately retarded although he’s friendly and good-natured. Of course we know that Hughie is going to be a suspect.

The other lodgers include Mr Forsythe, a rather prim former school master now well into middle age. It’s fun to see Wilfred Brambell, later to find fame as the grubby old man in Steptoe and Son, playing the straitlaced, pious, very proper and obviously well-educated Forsythe. Also lodging with Auntie B is Charles Ramskill (Howard Pays), a smooth young man with ambition. Auntie B’s friend Mrs Willis is trying to set Charles up with her daughter Lily (Anna Turner) but although Lily herself is keen on the idea it’s clear that Charles prefers his women to be a bit more exciting than the earnest and slightly frumpy Lily.

The murder of the daughter of the landlord at the Anchor public house causes a great deal of excitement and consternation. The evidence seems to point towards Hughie, and the townspeople are certainly convinced that he is the killer. Feelings are running high. This is one of those unpleasant movies in which rural and/or working-class people are portrayed as hateful bigots who will turn on anybody who is different.

Another murder follows. Another young woman brutally strangled. Superintendent Allen (Patrick Barr) is under pressure to make an arrest. But is Hughie really the murderer? And whoever the murderer is, will he strike again?

It’s never explicitly mentioned but the sexual nature of the crimes is made rather obvious.

Solving the mystery here is not going to stretch the mental capacities of the average viewer. It’s also fairly clear that Superintendent Allen has a pretty fair idea of the strangler’s identity. With the mystery not adding up to much the film has to rely on the suspense angle and it doesn’t really rise to any great heights in that department either.

This is also, even by Merton Park Studios standards, a very low-budget movie with minimal location shooting and pretty much everything being shot on a handful of not overly impressive sets.

If I’ve made this movie sound rather dull then I’m afraid that’s because it is rather dull. British B-pictures of this era are often surprisingly good in spite of their budgetary limitations but this one never shows any sign of being anything other than a very routine by-the-numbers B-picture.

The acting isn’t too bad. Terence Knapp is reasonably convincing as Hughie.

Network have released all the Merton Park Studios Edgar Wallace B-films in a number of boxed sets and they’ve thrown in as extras some of the non-Edgar Wallace titles I alluded to earlier, including this one (in the first of their boxed sets). Image quality is extremely and the transfer is anamorphic.

Urge to Kill is harmless enough but it’s definitely along way from the top rank of British B-features of its era. If you’re going to buy the Edgar Wallace boxed set then you’re getting it as an extra which is just as well since it would certainly not be worth purchasing on its own merits. Hard to recommend this one I’m afraid.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Fail-Safe (1964)

In 1964 there were two American movies due to be released both dealing the subject of an accidentally provoked nuclear war. One, and by far the better known movie, was of course Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. The other was Sidney Lumet’s Fail-Safe. The two movies are quite different in tone, Dr. Strangelove being a black comedy while Fail-Safe is (or tries to be) a tense political thriller. The similarities in plot are however quite extraordinary. In fact the plots are so similar that Kubrick and Columbia Pictures sued for plagiarism. Having now seen both films more or less back-to-back I can well understand why Kubrick and Columbia felt justified in taking legal action.

The case was settled out of court and the terms of the settlement were that Columbia should buy Fail-Safe. They did so, and delayed the release until well after Dr. Strangelove opened. When Fail-Safe finally came out it bombed at the box office and fans of the film tend to blame this on the delayed release. In fact Columbia acted very sensibly. Dr. Strangelove was a great movie with the potential to be a huge hit (which it was). Fail-Safe is clunky and dull and was never going to set the box-office alight.

Fail-Safe begins with some VIPs being shown around the Strategic Air Command headquarters. An unidentified radar contact causes some mild excitement but apparently this happens all the time. It’s no big deal, probably a commercial airliner off course. This is followed by some real excitement. Six American strategic bombers, armed with hydrogen bombs, have for some completely unknown reason started heading for the Soviet border. Efforts to recall them fail and now there’s a full-blown crisis and the President (Henry Fonda) is notified.

Also present in the War Room is political scientist Dr Groeteschele (based on real-life political scientist Herman Kahn and played by Walter Matthau). Dr Groeteschele sees this as a wonderful opportunity. He advises the President to launch a full-scale nuclear attack. OK, he calculates that at least sixty million Americans will die but that’s a small price to pay  for saving the American way of life from the evils of communism. (Groeteschele appears in an odd prologue scene being picked up at a party by a woman who seems to have a nuclear war fetish).

The President for some strange reason doesn’t think that it’s a good idea to risk destroying civilisation in order to save it and frantic efforts are soon underway to recall the rogue bombers or to destroy them, or at the very least to persuade the Russians that it was all a terrible accident.

The main protagonists all play much the same role that their equivalents play in Kubrick’s film. Dr Groeteschele is as mad in his own way as Dr Strangelove. The President is well-meaning. The military chiefs are divided. 

Although Fail-Safe is played as a straight thriller rather than a comedy it’s actually a lot less tense and exciting than Dr. Strangelove.

Fail-Safe was based on a book of the same name by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler while Kubrick’s movie was based on an earlier novel by Peter George. The basic plot outline is almost identical.

Sidney Lumet had a remarkable career as a director, managing to make not a single good movie in a very long career.

Fail-Safe is not so much a movie as a political lecture - strident, dreary and clumsy. It demonstrates that Kubrick’s decision to play the same material as comedy was a very very shrewd move. The political subtext in Kubrick’s production is made much more palatable and is in any case more nuanced.

Henry Fonda is an actor I’ve never liked. In this movie he just seems to be playing Henry Fonda. Walter Matthau is ludicrously miscast and his performance is the final disaster that sinks the film. The members of the supporting cast give rather stagey performances. Look out for Larry Hagman in a fairly important role as the President’s interpreter (and he’s one of the better actors in the film).

Sony’s Region 2 DVD looks pretty good and includes a mini-documentary on the film plus a commentary track by director Lumet.

Fail-Safe doesn’t really develop the necessary level of nail-biting suspense. The story has potential but Lumet doesn’t capitalise on it. The whole affair is too self-righteous. I had the same response to this one as I’ve had to most of Lumet’s films. He often starts out with an idea that seems to have potential but he doesn’t appear to know what to do with the idea. The result, more often than not, comes across as thematically incoherent.

If you’re a student of the Cold War or a fan of Cold War movies then Fail-Safe might be worth a look if only for the contrast it makes with Kubrick’s version. Otherwise I wouldn’t bother too much tracking this one down.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

We Dive at Dawn (1943)

I have a considerable fondness for submarine movies. We Dive at Dawn is a very decent example of the breed. It was a wartime production, released in 1943, and so there’s an obvious propaganda element (all of the British sailors are incredibly brave) but it has some definite compensating strengths. 

The submarine HMS Sea Tiger, commanded by Lieutenant Taylor (John Mills) has just returned from an unsuccessful cruise and her crew are looking forward to seven days’ leave. They’re not going to get it. They get a single day and then they’re immediately sent off on a highly dangerous and super-secret mission - to intercept and sink the brand new German battleship Brandenburg.

The film gets off to a slow start. The first twenty minutes or so follows the various crew members ashore on their very truncated leave. One is supposed to be getting married. One is trying to put his broken marriage back together. As for the captain, he’s hoping to get to see as many of his numerous girlfriends as he possibly can. This introductory materials serves its purpose of giving us an insight into the various characters even if it drags just a little.

Things pick up once they’re at sea and on the trail of the Brandenburg. The plan goes awry but rather than giving up Lieutenant Taylor comes up with an even more daring and dangerous plan - to break through into the Baltic, running the gauntlet of anti-submarine nets, minefields, the Luftwaffe and most of the German Navy. They do catch up to the German battleship, but whether they can succeed in sinking it or not is another matter.

Things gets even better in the final half-hour. The Sea Tiger’s fuel is exhausted and surrender seems to be the only option but instead a much bolder and much crazier idea occurs to our submariners - why not raid a port in German-occupied Denmark and steal the fuel they need? The movie now becomes an action-packed shoot ’em up extravaganza as they end up taking on half the German Army. The whole film is well made but this final segment is particularly well done.

The Royal Navy, seeing the obvious propaganda potential, lent its enthusiastic support and as a result this is a film that looks and feels surprisingly realistic with a lot of emphasis on how a submarine works and how submarine attacks are carried out.

Of course there are all the usual things you expect in a submarine movie - the tense moments under depth charge attack, the efforts to save the damaged submarine, the cunning plan adopted by her skipper to fool the Germans, etc. These are standard elements in a submarine movie but they’re handled skillfully. 

The tone is of course hyper-heroic. Nobody cracks up under pressure because these are British sailors and Britannia rules the waves. The Germans, perhaps surprisingly, are not portrayed as monsters but as fairly ordinary guys doing their job even if they’re no match for our British heroes.

You can’t go wrong casting John Mills as a British officer. Eric Portman (who shares top billing with Mills) is excellent as the hydrophone operator whose personal life is collapsing about his ears.

It looks pretty good on DVD. The image quality might not be be dazzling but it’s more than acceptable. The Region 2 DVD lacks extras but is fairly inexpensive. 

We Dive at Dawn is perhaps just a bit too heroic and just a bit too sentimental but it’s well-crafted and has some genuinely exciting moments. Recommended, and for submarine movie fans it’s a must-see.