Friday, April 21, 2017

Valley of the Kings (1954)

A square-jawed action hero who is also an archaeologist, and he’s searching for the fabled tomb of the Pharaoh Ra-Hotep but can he stay alive long enough to find it? This might sound like the plot of a lost Indiana Jones movie but in fact it predates Indy by more than twenty years. The movie is MGM’s big-budget 1954 adventure romp Valley of the Kings and it’s great stuff.

Mark Brandon (Robert Taylor) is a tough guy who worked as a labourer in some very rough places until he found employment on the Suez Canal project, which indirectly led to his discovery of his hitherto unsuspected passion for unearthing the treasures of the past. He transformed himself from a macho hardbitten labourer into a macho hardbitten archaeologist.

The year is 1900 and a meeting with Ann Barclay Mercedes (Eleanor Parker) is about to change Mark Brandon’s life forever. Ann is the daughter of a legendary archaeologist, now deceased. Her father believed that if the tomb of Ra-Hotep could be found it would contain evidence that support the Old Testament story of Joseph in Egypt and might possibly provide evidence that the Pharaoh in question was a secret monotheist.

For Ann it’s an opportunity to prove that her father’s theory wasn’t a crackpot idea and as she’s a devout Christian it’s also a way to promote her faith. For Mark Brandon there’s the remote chance that the tomb might actually be found, plus he’ll go along with most ideas if they’re likely to bring him into close contact with a beautiful young woman, although he cools a little on the scheme when he finds out that she’s married.

Her husband is Philip Mercedes (Carlos Thompson), a handsome but idle cosmopolitan dandy to whom Brandon takes an immediate dislike.

Ann’s father had come across some kind of clue to the location of the tomb and the plan adopted by our ill-matched threesome of treasure-seekers is to retrace the old man’s footsteps in his final journeyings before he died. This plan leads them to a remote Christian monastery, and to an important clue.

It soon becomes evident that people who take a keen interest in the location of Ra-Hotep’s  tomb have a habit of disappearing or turning up dead. In this instance it’s not some kind of course associated with the tomb - it seems far more likely to be a case of modern tomb-robbers wanting to keep a source of wealth to themselves. In any case it’s obvious that the search for the tomb is going to be hazardous in the extreme. Ann Mercedes and Mark Brandon are both immensely stubborn in their own very different ways and the dangers are not going to deter therm.

Adventures movies of the 50s have a reputation for leisurely placing (by modern standards) but that accusation can’t really be leveled at this movie. There’s plenty of action  and it doesn’t take long for that action to get going.

MGM spent a lot of money on this film, with a good deal of location shooting in Egypt. It was worth the trouble and the expense. The movie has a feeling of grandeur and majesty to it that fits in well with the themes of the story.

By 1954 Robert Taylor was no longer the young pretty-boy leading man of the 30s and 40s. He was starting to play darker more hardboiled roles in movies like Rogue Cop and his acting had improved markedly. Here he is ideally cast a fundamentally decent guy who is still rather rough around the edges. Eleanor Parker is excellent also. Ann is a strong woman but in a mostly very traditional way - she has genuine depth and strength of character rather than being a stereotypical movie tough cookie. The two leads have the right chemistry as well and that always helps.

Carlos Thompson was a very underrated Argentinian actor best known for the whimsical British 1963 action-adventure TV series The Sentimental Agent. As Philip Mercedes he’s all charm but perhaps not the sort of man to be wholly trusted.

This movie is available in the Warner Archive series. The print is acceptable but it’s far from pristine. In an ideal world a fine movie like this would get a full-scale restoration but alas we live in a far from perfect world. It’s a pity because the film was shot widescreen and in colour and with the wonderful Egyptian settings a restoration would pay spectacular dividends.

Valley of the Kings is a lavish and handsome production with well-executed action sequences and effective suspense. The standard of acting is rather better than is usual in 1950s Hollywood adventure flicks and the lead characters are at least somewhat three-dimensional. This movie is just great fun. Highly recommended.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Smashing the Money Ring (1939)

In 1939 and 1940 Ronald Reagan starred in the four Brass Bancroft thrillers for Warner Brothers. These were enjoyable B-feature crime thrillers retailing the exploits of Secret Service agent Lieutenant “Brass” Bancroft. Smashing the Money Ring was the third film in the series.

Bancroft and his partner “Gabby” Watters (Eddie Foy Jr) are on the trail of counterfeiters. A rather nasty hoodlum named Dice Matthews (Joe Downing) is running the racket and the phony money is being printed inside the state penitentiary. Dice figures it would be a swell idea to use the gambling ship operated by former mobster Steve Parker as a venue in which to pass the counterfeit greenbacks. Parker is all through with the rackets (the gambling ship is legitimate) and wants no part of it. The difficulty is that Dice Matthews is a vicious thug and his usual response to being thwarted is to have somebody rubbed out.

Parker comes up with a brilliant plan. He’ll squeal to the cops and he’ll avoid Dice’s vengeance by hiding out somewhere real safe for a month. And what could be a safer place than the state prison? Of course first he has to get himself into the prison but that’s easy - he’ll just slug a copper and get himself 30 days in the clink. The bonus here is that he’s always wanted to punch a policeman.

It all gets complicated and Brass himself has to go undercover as a convict to get himself into the penitentiary as well. Gabby is supposed to follow up leads involving the gambling ship but he spends more time pursuing Steve Parker’s attractive young daughter Peggy (Margot Stevenson). While Gabby is chasing skirt things start to get rough at the prison. More than just rough - people start getting shot which is not supposed to happen in jail.

The idea of a counterfeit racket operating inside a prison has been used in crime movies a number of times but it’s a good idea and in this case the script provides more than enough interest to maintain the viewer’s interest for the film’s very modest 57-minute running time. 

Director Terry O. Morse does a workmanlike job. He knows it’s a B-picture and his task is to get it done on time and on budget and to keep the action moving along. And there’s actually quite a lot action.

Brass Bancroft was an ideal role for the young Ronald Reagan. In this film he gets to be mostly likeable and heroic but then in the prison scenes he gets to do hardbitten tough guy stuff. And he manages it all with a certain aplomb.

The one great weakness of this series is that Eddie Foy Jr is a particularly lame and annoying comic relief actor. Luckily he gets less screen time than usual in this movie, and he’s less irritating than usual.

The supporting cast is competent and Joe Downing brings a nice mix of craziness and sadism to his role as Dice Matthews. Margot Stevenson is an adequate heroine.

One minor disappointment is that this film does not make use of the fact that Brass Bancroft is an aviator. A couple of the other Brass Bancroft films (Secret Service of the Air and Murder in the Air) feature airborne adventures.

The four Brass Bancroft movies are available on made-on-demand DVDs in the Warner Archive series in a two-disc pack. The transfers are excellent. There are no extras. All four movies are good solid crime thrillers making this pack a very worthwhile purchase for B-movie fans.

This is a better than average (and quite exciting) little programmer and Reagan gives his best performance of the series here. Smashing the Money Ring is certainly worth your time. Highly recommended.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Vicious Circle (1957)

Vicious Circle, also released as The Circle, is a 1957 British crime thriller with a screenplay by Francis Durbridge.

When you see Francis Durbridge’s name on the credits you expect a convoluted plot, which is exactly what this film boasts. You also expect the plot to be skillfully constructed, and again that’s precisely what you get here. 

It starts in very typical Durbridge fashion. You take a very ordinary fellow and plunge him into a nightmare vortex of fear and suspicion. In this case the ordinary chap is Harley Street specialist Dr Howard Latimer (John Mills). Dr Latimer sees a patient who has a very odd story to tell - she found a dead body in a park but the body later disappeared. Still, patients with odd stories to tell are not all that unusual. On the same day he is asked by an American friend to meet a German film star at London Airport. named Geoffrey Windsor, a reporter who had wanted to interview him, offers him a lift to the airport. A busy day but nothing really special.

And then he gets back to his flat and finds a dead woman there. This body does not disappear. Latimer’s problem is that it seems that no-one is able (or willing) to back up any part of his story. Even worse it appears that some of the people he is relying on to back up his story don’t seem to exist. No newspaper in Fleet Street will admit to any knowledge of a reporter named Geoffrey Windsor. All of this naturally arouses the suspicions of Detective Inspector Dane (Roland Culver).

All of Latimer’s efforts to make sense of the mystery just leave him more confused and more desperate. To top it all off there’s a mysterious character called Brady (Wilfred Hyde-White) trying to blackmail him.

John Mills was at the top of his form in the 50s. The movies he made during this decade have mostly aged rather well, partly due to his very natural and rather laid-back style (although he could be intense when intensity was called for). His performances were always utterly convincing. Apart from MiIls this film boasts some remarkably fine actors among the supporting cast. Derek Farr as Latimer’s buddy Kenneth Palmer, Mervyn Johns as his colleague Dr Kimber and Noelle Middleton as his girlfriend Laura give fine performances. Wilfred Hyde-White is wonderful as always and Roland Culver sparkles as the remorseless but rather sympathetic Inspector Dane.

It’s the acting that to a very large degree carries this film. British film-makers really did had an extraordinary array of acting talent to draw upon at this time.

Producer Peter Rogers and director Gerald Thomas are best remembered for the Carry On comedies but in the 50s they were responsible for a number of successful thrillers. Thomas certainly can’t be faulted for the job he does here. He (perhaps wisely) doesn’t try anything too fancy.

I guess this movie could be considered to be vaguely in the Hitchcock style, although more low-key and lacking the spectacular visual set-pieces. The theme of the ordinary guy dragged into mystery and danger of which he has no clear comprehension works pretty well.

This movie is included in the Region 2 John Mills Centenary Collection DVD boxed set. It gets a very good transfer although there’s not much in the way of extras. 

Vicious Circle is a well-crafted mystery thriller, typical of the solid productions of the 1950s British film industry. A treat for Durbridge fans. Highly recommended.