Sunday, May 21, 2017

Street of Shadows (1953)

Street of Shadows is one of the more interesting examples of the British film noir. It’s a B-movie and it really does tick most of the noir boxes.

Luigi (Cesar Romero) runs a pin-table saloon. It appears that such establishments really were a thing. It’s basically a bar laid out like an amusement arcade where patrons can play arcade games whilst indulging in the consumption of alcoholic beverages. It’s a thriving establishment and Luigi is reasonably wealthy. He’s also reasonably respectable. Luigi’s might be a bar but it’s a legitimate business. He makes sure there is no trouble and his relations with the local police are cordial.

Luigi’s character is established from the outset. He’s easy going and generous and kind but he’s also shrewd and determined and when the occasion calls for it he’s a tough guy. He’s a popular guy because he’s a decent guy and he’s easy to like.

Limpy (Victor Maddern) acts as a kind of personal assistant and general-purpose dogsbody to Luigi. As his name suggests he is a cripple with a severe limp. His loyalty to Luigi is total. For his part Luigi has a great affection for his assistant and is careful to treat him always with respect. Unfortunately not everyone in this imperfect world has Luigi’s manners and Limpy does find himself made the butt of cruel jokes from time to time.

There’s also a girl. Angele AbbĂ© (Simone Silva) had been Luigi’s girlfriend until he discovered that she was being too friendly with other men. Much too friendly, and to too many other men. Luigi, hardly surprisingly, dumped her. Angele has continued on her self-chosen downward spiral and is held together by alcohol, self-pity and the belief that somehow she can persuade Luigi to take her back. Which is not going to happen. Apart from anything else Luigi is the kind of guy who sticks to decisions once he’s made them. Angele has a great deal of pity for herself but none for other people and her behaviour towards Limpy is shocking in its casual cruelty. At the moment Angele has got herself involved with a rather nasty bad boy sailor.

There’s also another girl. Through a series of chance events Luigi makes the acquaintance  of Barbara Gale (Kay Kendall). Barbara is charming and classy but she always seems to be ill at ease. We soon find out why. She has fallen in with a very bad crowd and one of them is her husband. These are bad people and just how willing she is to go along with their nefarious schemes is open to question.

There’s an immediate attraction between Luigi and Barbara. In fact Luigi, being an old-fashioned romantic, has fallen for her hard.

It’s obvious that there’s plenty of potential here for things to get complicated and messy. In fact it’s the kind of situation that has been known to end in murder. And in this case there is indeed murder, but both the identity of the victim and the circumstances are not quite what we might have expected.

There’s a certain sense of inevitability in evidence here. We’re dealing with a number of characters who seem like they’re destined to get themselves into trouble, and they seem like the sorts of people who having got themselves into a hole will contrive to keep digging the hole deeper and deeper.

This seems to be the only film made by writer-director Richard Vernon (although he does have a few producing credits). There wasn’t very much money spent on this movie but what was spent was spent pretty well. There’s some authentic noir atmospheric to the visuals and Luigi’s pin-table saloon makes a great setting - sinister laughing clowns add a definite noir flavour. The script, based on a novel by Laurence Meynell, is perfectly serviceable.

Cesar Romero gives a breezy and charming performance as a man who thinks he has life under control, until he finds out that he hasn’t. Kay Kendall has plenty of style and the two of them haver the right chemistry. Edward Underdown makes a rather brusque Scotland Yard inspector. It’s Victor Maddern as the crippled Limpy who really steals the picture though. It’s a performance that is sympathetic but without sentimentality and it has a definite edge to it.

Street of Shadows was released in a shortened version in the US as Shadow Man. The original British version forms part of VCI’s Forgotten Noir DVD series. The transfer is nothing special but it’s quite acceptable for a budget DVD release.

Street of Shadows is a cheap but well-crafted B-movie with a distinctively English noir feel. The fine performances make this one well worth seeing. Highly recommended.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Never Back Losers (1961)

Crooked dealings on the racetrack provide the background to Never Back Losers, a 1961 entry in the Merton Park Studios cycle of ultra-cheap British Edgar Wallace potboilers.

Jim Matthews (Jack Hedley) is a lowly clerk working for an insurance company. The work is mind-numbingly boring but there is hope. He has applied for a transfer to the Claims department which would mean much more interesting work and getting out from a desk. Much to his surprise his transfer is approved. He finds that working in Claims is perhaps more exciting than he’d bargained for. His first case may prove to be his last.

It’s a pretty routine case. A jockey named Wally Sanders was badly injured in a car crash and won’t be able to ride again. Wally had demonstrated admirable foresight in taking out an insurance policy which covered him for such eventualities. The insurance company is however not entirely happy about the claim, partly because Sanders had been involved in an incident on the racetrack which suggested he might have deliberately caused his horse, the odds on favourite, to lose. There is no proof but the stewards were just a little doubtful about his explanation. Investigating the claim will be the first assignment for Jim Matthews in his new position.

He throws himself into the case with energy and enthusiasm, although perhaps not with terribly good judgment. He discovers a few things that suggest that Wally Sanders was definitely mixed up in something crooked. In fact Jim discovers enough to earn himself a beating by a couple of hoodlums who warn him to stop nosing around. Jim is an easy-going affable sort of chap but he’s very stubborn and he’s determined to keep digging.

It seems highly likely that Ben Black (Patrick Magee) is involved in some way. Black runs a number of legitimate businesses and others that are not so legitimate.

There’s also (naturally) a pretty young woman mixed up in the affair, which may be a partial explanation for Jim’s keen interest in the case. Marion Parker (Jacqueline Ellis) is the sister of jockey Clive Parker (Larry Martyn) and he’s been hanging around with a rather unsavoury crowd lately.

This is a very low-key crime thriller. There’s only one scene at the beginning and some brief moments at the end set at an actual racetrack (and the racing footage is presumably just stock footage) which is rather disappointing but not surprising given the very low budgets these features were made on. The slightly seedy world of losers living on the borderline between legitimate employment and petty crime is evoked reasonably well. The movie is shot in a very straightforward and competent if uninspired manner. There’s not a lot of visual interest in this movie. Director Robert Tronson went on to a successful career in television.

For a film presumably based on an Edgar Wallace story the plot is decidedly lacking in fiendish plot twists. Lukas Heller’s screenplay doesn’t exactly dazzle us with its originality.

Jack Hedley makes an amiable and sympathetic hero. He doesn’t have the mind of a brilliant detective and he’s sorely lacking in experience but he has one thing going for him - he just doesn’t realise that he’s out of his depth and that he should just walk away. He’s like a big friendly dog who’s picked up a scent and he just can’t let it go.

Jacqueline Ellis is no more than competent as an actress but she’s attractive and she manages well enough in an undemanding role.

The movie’s one big asset is Patrick Magee. It’s the kind of outlandishly excessive and outrageously hammy performance that Magee specialised in and it provides some of the vitality and fun that is otherwise in short supply in this picture. Magee is simply wonderful.

Never Back Losers is one of seven films making up Network’s Region 2 Edgar Wallace Mysteries: Volume 2 DVD set. The anamorphic transfer is extremely good. 

Never Back Losers is not a great movie. It’s not even a good movie. It is at best a harmless distraction. Jack Hedley’s good-natured charm and Patrick Magee’s bravura performance almost make it worthwhile. This is definitely one of the weaker movies in an otherwise very fine boxed set and if you’re going to buy the set then watching this movie will only be 61 minutes out of your life. For all its weaknesses I couldn’t bring myself to actively dislike this movie.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Rhythm on the River (1940)

Rhythm on the River is a 1940 Paramount musical starring Bing Crosby and Mary Martin, and it’s harmless but thoroughly charming entertainment.

Oliver Courtney (Basil Rathbone) is Broadway’s most successful and most acclaimed songwriter. His shows are guaranteed hits. He’s on top of the world. There’s only one problem. Courtney can’t write songs any more. He hasn’t been able to write songs for several years, since he had his heart broken. Since then he’s been relying on ghost writers, for both the tunes and the lyrics.

The tunes have been provided by Bob Sommers (Bing Crosby). Bob is happy enough with the arrangement. He gets a guaranteed income and he’s really not a very ambitious guy. All he wants in life is a catboat. Courtney will give him one in order to endure that those tunes keep coming.

The big problem is that the ghost writer who was providing Courtney’s lyrics has very inconveniently died. That problem seems to have been overcome when Courtney and his faithful musical assistant Billy Starbuck (Oscar Levant) find Cherry Lane (Mary Martin). She seems like the ideal lyricist and she’s willing to accept the arrangement. Of course we know that there are going to be complications.

Bob and Cherry keep bumping into each other but each of them is unaware that the other is also ghost-writing for Courtney. 

Cherry’s having difficulties writing her lyrics since a six-piece hot jazz combo moved into the apartment next door to hers. She needs peace and quiet but owing to the kinds of coincidences that you expect in a musical she ends up seeking out that peace and quiet at Nobody’s Inn, a little place that just happens to be owned by Bob’s uncle.

Obviously their secrets are going to come out eventually but where will that leave them all?  Bob and Cherry can’t sell their own songs - they’re unknown songwriters and there are thousands of unknown songwriters in New York. Oliver Courtney has the name that automatically sells songs but he can’t write any. They’re all likely to end up in a pickle.

Backstage musicals and musicals about the songwriting business are a dime a dozen but this picture has something that you very rarely encounter in a musical - a plot with some genuine originality. In fact it has a very clever plot (and at this point it should be noted that one of the writers was a fellow by the name of Billy Wilder).

It also has a terrific cast. Bing Crosby gives a performance that is laid-back even by Bing Crosby standards but his easy-going charm works its magic. Mary Martin is an excellent female lead and she and Crosby have the right chemistry. Basil Rathbone takes what could have been an unsympathetic part and makes Oliver Courtney rather likeable. He might be living off other people’s talent but it’s not by choice and he’s not relly a cynical exploiter. Oscar Levant basically plays himself, wise-cracking and cynical and very amusing. Rathbone and Levant make a surprisingly good comedy team.

This is a musical that doesn’t have to rely entirely on the music. There’s a decent story, reasonably three-dimensional characters and some sparkling dialogue. And the music is very good with some very fine songs.

The jam session in the pawnbroker’s shop is a highlight.

Rhythm on the River is available on DVD paired on a single disc with another Bing Crosby musical, Rhythm on the Range. Rhythm on the Range isn’t quite as good but it’s not bad and this pleasingly cheap double-header DVD really is a must-buy for Crosby fans. The transfer is very good as well.

Rhythm on the River is a bit of a mystery. It’s one of Bing Crosby’s best musicals and yet it seems to be one of those chronically overlooked and underrated movies. It has wit, style, romance, humour and great songs. Highly recommended.